Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Coal River by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: November 5, 2015

As a child, Emma Malloy left isolated Coal River, Pennsylvania, vowing never to return. Now, orphaned and penniless at nineteen, she accepts a train ticket from her aunt and uncle and travels back to the rough-hewn community. Treated like a servant by her relatives, Emma works for free in the company store. There, miners and their impoverished families must pay inflated prices for food, clothing, and tools, while those who owe money are turned away to starve. Most heartrending of all are the breaker boys Emma sees around the village--young children who toil all day sorting coal amid treacherous machinery. Their soot-stained faces remind Emma of the little brother she lost long ago, and she begins leaving stolen food on families' doorsteps, and marking the miners' bills as paid. Though Emma's actions draw ire from the mine owner and police captain, they lead to an alliance with a charismatic miner who offers to help her expose the truth. And as the lines blur between what is legal and what is just, Emma must risk everything to follow her conscience. 

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Every time I see the cover of Ellen Marie Wiseman's Coal River, I think of Audrey Hepburn perched on her window sill while George Peppard watches covertly from his apartment above. Her voice echoes in my mind and I start humming the famed bars of Moon River. For the record, there is no correlation between the movie and the book, I simply couldn't get into the narrative and one point or another realized the title had the right number of syllables. 

My apologies to all who enjoyed it, but Coal River reads like a Hallmark movie and I found the entire thing overly sentimental and dull. I all but choked on Wiseman's saccharine heroine, I found the romantic element laughably predictable and feel the resolution comically contrived. There were a couple hard moments of genuine horror, but by and large I spent most of my read frustrated that Wiseman chose to tell the breaker boys' story through a character I didn't appreciate. 

To be perfectly honest, I was annoyed that Wiseman chose to ignore the inherent tenacity, fortitude and strength of the coal mining community. In her novel, these people need to be rescued, but historically, these people rescued themselves. The were forced to work in hellish conditions, their nerve and perseverance were forged by the danger of their occupation, and they found it in themselves to demand change. Wiseman ignores the grit and spirit of these individuals, opting instead to have them liberated on the effort of an outsider. Maybe it's just me, but I felt the oversight mocked the realities and I found derision difficult to stomach.

A lot of readers enjoyed Coal River and while I am truly happy for them, I admit that I am not among their number. I enjoyed Wiseman's writing well enough and will likely attempt her work again, but the execution of this particular piece failed to capture my admiration, interest, or imagination. 

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Emma followed Sawyer up the steep, narrow steps on the outside of the breaker, cringing as the bone dry staircase creaked beneath her boots. Gripping the iron railing with one hand, she hoped no one would see the terror in her eyes.
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