by Kevin Corley
Reviewed by Mike Matejka
Grand Prairie Union News, Bloomington, Illinois
Posted with permission
Coal miners were once referred to as the “shock troops of labor,” hardened union members who were often shot at and not afraid to shoot back.
Coal was the fuel of 19th and early 20th century economic expansion. The work was dangerous and poorly paid. Coal miners, often in isolated rural communities, fought hard to build a strong union. There are battle grounds and disasters that still echo today– Virden, Cherry, Ludlow, Matewan, Herrin and numerous others.
Central and southern Illinois was a critical building block to the United Mine Workers’ success. Drawing all these stories together yet still making them vivid and real is a challenge for any writers. Retired Christian County high school teacher Kevin Corley has successfully done that in his new novel, Sixteen Tons.
Historical figures like Mother Jones and Matewan’s Sheriff Sid Hatfield appear, but Corley has woven together a diverse cast of characters– Italian immigrants, West Virginia miners, African-Americans and native born.
Together they do what families do– mature, get married and raise families.
Coal field hard realities continually interrupt their lives. There are mine disasters and grieving widows. There is World War I and the mass flu epidemic that followed. There are miners from central Illinois volunteering to help other miners, bringing them to Colorado, Kentucky and West Virginia to aid strikers.
Finally, the Illinois coal fields erupts in a war– not between the miners and the coal companies, but miner against miner, as union members dissatisfied with their national organization start their own union.
High stakes battles could easily overshadow character in a novel this far-ranging. Corley effectively creates individuals who are not cardboard cut-outs, but real workers with varied viewpoints. The women are just as vivid, showing families debating their risks and next move.
As a teacher, Corley soaked up stories of the Illinois coal fields, translating them into a readable novel of a recent past that should not be forgotten.