Cotton was King in the South at one time. “But as with the history of many regions of the country, including Appalachia, what once was king was now commonplace and often out-of-place,” writes retired broadcaster Ed Rabel in his new novel set in West Virginia.
The decline of coal and the rise of political conservatism are focus points in “Black Gold, Black Death: In Coal Country, America’s President is Marked for Assassination.”
West Virginia coal operators “wouldn’t admit publicly … that the remaining coal was hard to get, uneconomical to mine and growing more controversial with every passing day,” writes the award-winning television reporter. “Black Gold, Black Death” is filled with critical observations about the coalfields and its residents.
“Naivete was not the only inscrutable phenomenon that characterized West Virginia and West Virginians in the coal fields. Political and religious extremism were having a field day as well,” the novel says.
Rabel writes how unpopular President Barack Obama is throughout the coalfields, but he never mentions that when Obama won only seven West Virginia counties in 2008, his best three percentages were in three coal-producing counties: Boone, McDowell and Webster.
Many of the book’s fictional characters are replicas of real life people. Rabel mentions the Upper Big Branch disaster, which killed 29 miners in 2010 at a mine owned by a subsidiary of Massey Energy, which Rabel describes as a “rogue corporation.” In the book, after the disaster, “millionaire mine manager Don Frankenshire went into hiding until his mine was sold post-explosion.”
Throughout, Rabel focuses on what he sees as negative aspects of life in parts of West Virginia, such as:
n “Locals who live in crude shacks and doublewides… Sometimes the creek dwellers get swept away along with their pitiful little houses.”
n Residents who are “too fat, lazy and boogerheaded to ask where all that Goddamn money went” that was made by coal companies.
n Charleston is “the most miserable city in America” and West Virginia is the “most miserable state in the nation,” apparently referring to recent polls some social analysts question.
n “In the small-town coalfields of southern West Virginia, preachers like [Rev. Robert ‘Rocky’] Rockston found fertile grounds for their hypocrisy.” The evangelical minister character focuses on fighting “evils” like homosexuality, dancing and evolutionary theories, but do little or nothing to help poor West Virginians.
n West Virginians today face a lack of opportunity, lack of good schools and lack of hope.
n People “festered behind in the coal camps” are typically “tattooed from head to toe, wrapped in Confederate flags, smoking anything they could get their lips around. Behaving like stereotypes, they were thus stereotypes for good reason.”
n Rabel singles out Yeager Airport for attack, calling it a “rinky-dink airfield … a disaster waiting to happen … . Now the airport stood emblematic of the decline and fall of once proud West Virginia. Just like coal.” He criticizes residents and business leaders who successfully fought efforts to build a new airport to replace Yeager in Lincoln County.
n The main story involves a bizarre plot to assassinate the nation’s first black president, named Adin Kenya. The plot involves characters including a former coal operator who now owns the Greenbrier name Jim Rustic and U.S. Sen. Mike Rancid.
In a note at the beginning of the book, Rabel stresses that his “characters are completely fictional or composites of real people: they are products of my imagination, as are events and places. Any resemblance to businesses, companies, events, locales (with the exception of the Greenbrier) or actual persons (other than my grandparents and mother) living or dead is coincidental.”
Willie Metz, a coal miner who becomes a leading figure in the novel’s assassination attempt, is modeled after Rabel’s maternal grandfather Wilhelm Metz. The character’s wife Mary is based on his maternal grandmother.
Rabel, now an independent candidate for U.S. Congress in West Virginia’s Second District, spent many years as a television correspondent for CBS and NBC, reporting from countries including Vietnam, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Cuba. He won five Emmy Awards. He received one of those Emmys and a George Polk Award for his documentary about Guatemala’s military government killing tens of thousands of native people and its own citizens.
Today, he is also an adjunct professor of journalism at The Edward R. Murrow College of Communications in Pullman, Washington. Rabel published his personal memoir, “Ed Rabel Reports: Lies, Wars and Other Misadventures,” in 2012.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.