History fascinates readers, but sometimes they want to lose themselves in the narrative flow of fiction. A number of West Virginia authors have looked at events or eras in our state’s history that sweep the reader along in a great story.
Hubert Skidmore wrote a series of novels in the 1930s and 1940s which told of hard working West Virginians and the forces that exploited their labor. His most famous work was “Hawks Nest,” which saw limited circulation. The rumor was that the corporation Union Carbide squashed the book. However, the book has been reprinted in more recent times, most notably by the University of Tennessee.
The construction of the tunnel for hydroelectricity at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, at the height of the Great Depression drew workers from across the state and the south. Skidmore weaves together the stories of families from the mountains, immigrants and black workers attracted by the job. Unfortunately, the job came at a great price — silicosis, or as the workers called it, “tunnelitis.” Workers died by the hundreds because of the lack of safety protections as they bored through Gauley Mountain working on the tunnel. Skidmore brings a human face to one of the worst industrial tragedies in the United States.
John Suter was a Union Carbide chemist who wrote award-winning mystery short stories on his breaks. His work appeared in mystery anthologies and mystery magazines. “Old Land, Dark Land, Strange Land” contains several of his best known characters, including the old-time character of Uncle Abner who was revived by Suter at the request of the estate of Uncle Abner’s creator, Melville Davisson Post.
Among the contemporary mysteries is one of the crime solving duo, Arlan Boley, a heavy equipment operator and Sheriff Warren McKee. Together, they cracked a number of cases by unraveling the flaws in human nature.
Author Sharyn McCrumb states in her introduction that Suter is “... crafting his well-written, meticulously observed slice of ordinary life into gems of crime fiction. You are in the hands of one of the best.”
Julia Keller, a Huntington native, has set her Bell Elkins’ mystery series in a drug-riddled West Virginia town, Akers Gap. In “A Killing in the Hills,” prosecuting attorney Elkins is trying to make sense of the shooting deaths of three old coots at a fast food restaurant and being a mother to her teenage daughter, Carla. Complicating matters even more, Carla was a witness and is hiding the fact from her mother. As a former journalist, Keller crafts a tight story with characters readers will care about. She also paints a realistic portrait balancing the pains of a shrinking population, the impact of drug use and the beauty of West Virginia.
Mary Lee Settle was born in West Virginia to a mine engineer and his wife, but her life took her far away to New York City, England, Canada, Turkey and more. Her literary reputation rests on the Beulah Quintet, a series of novels that span several centuries in West Virginia. The first, “Prisons,” is set in England. The second book set in Canona, a fictional version of Charleston, is “O Beulah Land.”
Covering the time period of 1755 to 1775, “O Beulah Land” follows a group as they move gradually westward from eastern Virginia toward the Ohio Valley. Settle explores the issues of class and freedom as Jonathan Lacey and the others establish a settlement in an area torn by conflicts with the Native Americans and lawless frontiersmen. Settle’s extensive research on the time period makes for a rich novel with the sound and feel of the era.
The drought of 1954 plays a part in French Creek native Sarah Loudin Thomas’ first novel “Miracle in a Dry Season.” Hoping to find a refuge from her past, Perla Long has come to Wise, West Virginia, with her daughter, Sadie. Her aunt and uncle have taken them in just as the 1954 drought makes life in Wise harder. Bachelor Casewell Phillips finds himself drawn to Perla just as her gift begins bringing her unwanted notice. Her ability to turn a meager amount of food into more at a time of shortage draws gossip. The town needs a miracle, but will they accept it from Perla? Thomas’ first book set in Wise will draw in fans of Debbie Macomber.
Hailing from the Cass area, it is no surprise that W. E. Blackhurst’s novels focus on the timbering era of West Virginia’s history at the turn of the last century. “Riders of the Flood” is the story of Duncan “Dunk” Mall, whose life in Washington, D.C., has collapsed. Looking for a new beginning, he ends up riding the rails to West Virginia and finds himself working in the lumber industry. Timbering and transporting logs downstream is a dangerous yet lucrative job, but Mall finds himself under the wing of men like Windy Hammer and others. Will the conflicts and challenges he encounters remake Mall into a better man?
The novel set in Ronceverte has also inspired a local play, which is performed annually in September near the St. Lawrence Broom and Lumber Mill site.
Author Davis Grubb had an office in the main library as “writer in residence” in the 1960s. By then Grubb had already written his best known work, “The Night of the Hunter,” inspired by Harry Powers’ 1932 murders of two women and three children in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. The case also inspired West Virginia author Jayne Anne Phillips to write “Quiet Dell.”
In Grubb’s version, Harry Powell comes to court the widow Willa Harper under the guise of a minister. In reality, he served time in prison with her late husband and has come for the money from the husband’s last robbery. To do this he needs to get close to her children. This southern gothic thriller grabbed readers and movie-goers who may remember Robert Mitchum’s tattooed hands marked “love” and “hate.”
Rebecca Harding Davis moved to the steel town of Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1836 as a child. In 1861, her short story, “Life in the Iron Mills,” was published in the Atlantic Magazine. The story eschews a romantic take on the crushing toil of workers in factories at the time. Davis is now seen as ushering in the realistic movement in American writing.
Davis’ narrator unfolds the story, looking back through time at Hugh Wolfe, an iron worker, and his cousin Deborah, a spooler. Both are living on the financial edge, but Wolfe finds an outlet in making art from korl, a byproduct of the smelting process. It is his korl statue of a woman that will lead to an interaction that will upset the delicate balance and meager security of Hugh and Deborah’s lives. A powerful tale of poverty and the caste system, this story, along with others, have been rereleased as Davis has been rediscovered.