Mining Stories from Great Authors
Hector Tobar is one of those journalists who has made a successful leap from daily journalism to writing books, and not just great nonfiction books like Deep Down Dark, which may I just say is one of the best and most impressive books I have read in the last year. How he managed to intertwine the lives of the 33 miners trapped underground in Chile in 2010 into a compelling story is a feat of storytelling.
Hector knows something about storytelling – one of his most successful books before Deep Down Dark was his 2011 novel The Barbarian Nurseries. Tobar, a Los Angeles native whose parents were immigrants from Guatemala, was given the assignment, as a young Los Angeles Times reporter, of covering the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Now he is at the table for multi-million dollar movie deals, He has seen the city at all levels, from the poorer people who perform a multitude of necessary duties for the city’s wealthy to the wealthy themselves.
The Barbarian Nurseries main character is Araceli Ramirez, a maid of Mexican heritage who, as the novel opens, is watching one of her bosses, a former titan in the programming world, struggle to start a lawn mower. This guy has spent his life paying other people to perform basic chores for him, and suddenly he’s in financial trouble, and he’s trying to mow his own lawn. Things deteriorate, and suddenly Araceli is left with her boss’ children, with no idea where either parent is. This is a darkly humorous book that will give you a bird’s eye view of LA, a city of contrasts if there ever was one.
I asked Hector, when I interviewed him for The Seattle Times, what books he read to inform his reporting in Deep Down Dark. His answer was a little surprising – rather than read books about mining, he read for inspiration two classics of nonfiction narrative writing – Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Either of those books – Orlean’s, about a guy who steals orchids from a Florida swamp, and Capote’s, a deeply reported account of a family’s murder in Kansas, would be excellent inspiration for anyone wrestling with how to tell a true story in a book.
Hector did mention one book by Emile Zola, the 19th century writer whose work has experienced a renaissance of sorts because of The Paradise, the PBS series based on one of Zola’s novels Au Bonheur des Dames.
It’s called Germinal. This is one reason I love my job on “Well Read” – I had never heard of it! It is a harsh and realistic story about a coal miners’ strike in France in the 1860s. There are many characters, a love affair and above all, a brutally accurate description of the violence of the strike and what happens after a Russian anarchist sets off an explosion and traps the miners underground, as they embark on a very long wait for rescue. The title he title, Germinal, refers to the seventh month of the French Revolutionary Calendar, springtime in France, and is meant to evoke imagery of new growth and fertility. It’s generally considered to be Zola’s masterpiece.
Another novel that features mining is Work Song, the 2010 by the late and much missed Ivan Doig. Work Song is set in Butte, Montana, where the Anaconda Mining Company reigns supreme over a gigantic mining operation that has attracted swarms of immigrants from all over the world. It’s after World War I, and the introduction of electricity worldwide has created an insatiable demand for copper. Into town comes Morrie Morris, who showed up in previous Doig books as a schoolteacher. He comes to Butte and is drawn into the miner’s plight when Anaconda informs the miners of a unilateral pay cut.
I don’t remember the specifics of the Work Song plot so much as I remember Doig’s portrayal of Butte, which sat on top of what was the world’s biggest vein of copper, a town bursting at the seams with vitality and intrigue. It was quite a place, until the copper boom went bust.
Doig is often compared to Wallace Stegner, who was known as the dean of American writers in his lifetime. Stegner, who guided and influenced a generation of writers, wrote about mining in his masterpiece novel, Angle of Repose.
Angle of Repose is such a good book, I have read it two or three times. Its story is told by Lyman Ward, a wheelchair-bound historian, who recounts the story of his grandparents. His grandfather, Oliver Ward, was a mining engineer; his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, was a cultivated Eastern woman who fell in love with Oliver and married him, thence consigning herself to living all over the West in some of the roughest mining towns on the continent. She is one of the great characters of American literature, a woman who is thrust into circumstances she never imagined, who makes harsh sacrifices but retains her essential character. Stegner saw the West, not as an infinite frontier rife with golden opportunities, but as a place of great natural beauty that was relentlessly exploited as it was opened – his ability to tell that story through Susan’s eyes is one of the strengths of the novels.
Susan Burling Ward was based on a real person, Mary Hallock Foote, whose letters were eventually published as a book, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West. There has been a fair amount of controversy as to whether Stegner gave her enough credit. But the book is also based on Stegner’s life; he also moved all around the west as a child, and spent the rest of his life writing about it.
Finally, I can’t get out of here without mentioning How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn , the classic 1930s novel about a Welsh mining family. As with so many of these books, it involves a family and a community whose lives are bound up in mining – until the ore plays out, and a way of life is lost to history.