“Honey from the Lion” by Matthew Neill Null
Lookout Books (U of North Carolina), 2015, 249 pgs.
“Honey from the Lion” is a title culled from the book of Judges in the Bible. In Judges, Samson dispatches a young lion that threatened him. Later, Samson passes the lion carcass and finds bees had settled in the lion’s body and made honey. Samson gathers the honey combs to take to his family, not telling them he had killed the lion.
In this book, which reads like a thriller, a sweeping epic, and historical fiction at its best, the honey from the lion becomes a metaphor — violence and death begets sustenance.
In the late 1800s, virgin timber covered two thirds of West Virginia. Civil War soldiers who noticed the massive, centuries-old trees while in battle return after the war to become land speculators. Here the story sounds — to native West Virginians — familiar when it comes to the extractive industries: for a few dollars we’ll buy your land, and you’ll be glad you got that much.
The book follows the activity of those employed with the Cheat River Paper and Pulp Company that begins clear-cutting. Such industry leaves in its wake the deaths of many humans, uncountable animals dead and dying, major poverty, destroyed streams and land. At the center of the tens of thousands of acres being cut is the fictional town of Helena.
In and around Helena, the tree cutters, called “Timber Wolves,” take the stage, each revealing pitiful lives and desperate efforts to keep food in their stomachs. Null invites into the story other citizens of Helena, such as the hapless pastor Seldomridge, corrupt Constable Green, and the Syrian peddler Grayhab, to represent likely inhabitants in that time period, all who help tell the story of boom and bust towns and industry. One character who is followed the most in the story is Cur Greathouse, a timber wolf, fleeing from his home for a particularly egregious sin, and who seems to seek a father figure, or a hero of some sort, from among the rough, ragged older wolves.
But if you’re looking for heroes in this story, you won’t find many, especially not amongst the absent land-owners, or even among the timber wolves and other citizens in the town. It’s not a story about heroes despite the hardship and continual brutality, unless you count the few brave souls who are fighting for the right to unionize, to have the right to bargain for a few more pennies on the dollar and better working conditions. If you know anything about labor history, that story is fraught with continual violence to gainsay a humane working life. Most unionizing stories seem to have happened in the coal fields, but that is not the whole story. Moreover, West Virginia led many changes in labor practices through laws more frequently than in other areas. And it was the citizens of West Virginia who suffered greatly in those efforts and it this deep, abiding history that Null captures.
The devastation and cruelty to humans, the torture of animals of every kind, symbolically represents the destroyed land. Therein lays the groundwork for this novel’s specifics that shadows a universality, because it is not only in West Virginia that so many lives and living things were/are brutalized for the sake of profit or the perceived need of nations. Null crafts this grand story through artful language, vivid imagery, and he possesses a mastery in storytelling, to create for the reader an extraordinary look into the lives, loves, and struggles of a people upon whose backs the rest of us have thrived.
Speaking of Null’s writing, I was reminded of native West Virginian authors Ann Pancake and Breece Pancake. With Ann, the language, much like Null’s, is associative in such a way that we interpret more from what is on the page than the actual words — whole universes are revealed with the brief, almost telegraphic, turn of a few phrases. And like Breece, Null’s narrative is dark, at times bitterly cold — and reveals all those lost souls that we can only mourn.
This is a dark book, with little light peeping through in these characters’ existence, but if the book can provide anything of light — and it certainly provides ample substance — it might be that we are shown a reality that many never knew, or will ever know. Within this meticulously researched book of fiction, the truth is baldly revealed.
At the end of the book, Cur makes his way back to his home place, perhaps the last small timber stand that has not been clear-cut. Here the author sums up a long-held West Virginia understanding of how the world works: “They had come here before America was a nation, and in their own country, the Greathouses would feel increasingly foreign, here in their mountains, far from the centers of commerce and printing press and power. They would be thought backward and worthless by those who had profited from them most.”
Obtaining honey from a lion comes at a great price, and Null is the skilled author to bring us this particular story, one we should never forget.
Cat Pleska is a writer, educator and publisher. She is the president of Mountain State Press and an essayist at West Virginia Public Radio. Her website is www.catpleska.com, and she can be reached by email at email@example.com.