Shortly before daybreak in War, West Virginia, a passing train derails and spills an avalanche of coal over 16-year-old Emma Palmisano's house, trapping her sleeping family inside. The year is 1924, and the remote mines of Appalachia have filled with families like Emma's, poor immigrant laborers building new lives half a world away from the island of Sicily.
Emma awakens in total darkness to the voice of a railroad man, Caleb Sypher, who is digging her out from the suffocating coal. From his pocket, he removes two spotless handkerchiefs and tenderly cleans Emma's bare feet. Though she knows little else about this railroad man, Emma marries him a week later. Caleb delivers her from the gritty coal camp to 47 acres of pristine Virginia mountain farmland.
In the Garden of Stone is a multi-generational tale about the nature of power and pride, love and loss, and how one impoverished family endures estrangement from the land and each other in order to unearth the rich seams of forgiveness.
Emma gives birth to a son, Dean, but the family's life is shattered by a hobo's bullet at the railroad station; the boy grows up early, becoming a remote man with fierce and unpredictable loyalties. Dean's daughter, Hannah, forsakes her heritage and wanders far from home, in the end reconnecting with the Sypher family in the wildest place of all, the human heart. Bleak, harrowing, and beautifully told, In the Garden of Stone is a haunting saga of endurance and redemption.
Though Tekulve thoughtfully executes a multi-generational tale, its epic intentions sometimes falter, due in part to Emma’s fate restricting her character’s potential too soon in the story. In some spots, related but distracting storylines tend to hinder cohesion and momentum. Overall, however, Tekulve’s patient, absorbing prose is well worth lingering over, contemplating, and even savoring until the final page. (Reviewed by Suzanne Reeder).
The book reads less like a novel than a loosely linked collection of short stories, with abrupt shifts in time and point of view that deaden emotional engagement, despite the hardships each character faces. Though the plot offers few footholds and frequent repetitions, descriptions of living off of the land - and the land itself - are in abundant supply.
While the plot wanders at times, Tekulve's story is completely absorbing and her characters moving. Fans of Lee Smith and Southern literary fiction will find much to savor here.
In West Virginia, coal mining has a long and complex history.
The first reported discovery of coal occurred in 1742, more than a century before West Virginia became a state. The fossil fuel resource, present in all but two of West Virginia's 55 counties, began to thrive as a commercial industry in the late 19th century, when the completion of major railroads made the transport and marketing of coal more feasible. The uses for coal ranged from heating homes to fueling salt furnaces and steamboats.
Industry growth created jobs, which were often filled by laborers from Wales, Scotland, England and Southern Europe. Immigrants endured long work hours, low pay, poor housing, negligible medical care, and dangerous conditions.
Obtaining bituminous coal (sometimes called soft coal, the type that is so plentiful in the state) was grueling...
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