Last year, Silas House, the author of Clay’s Quilt and co-author of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountain-top Removal, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called “My Polluted Kentucky Home.” It referred to a sit-in at the offices of governor Steve Beshear to protest his support of mountain-top removal, and said in part,
Since it was first used in 1970, mountaintop removal has destroyed some 500 mountains and poisoned at least 1,200 miles of rivers and streams across the Appalachian coal-mining region. The news media and the rest of the country typically think of mountaintop removal as an environmental problem. But it’s a human crisis as well, scraping away not just coal but also the freedoms of Appalachian residents, people who have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above.
Mountain-top removal, most commonly used in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, is exactly what it sounds like: In order to get at elusive seams of coal buried deep inside the mountains, explosives are used to blast the the mountain tops and ridges off, bringing them down hundreds of feet and piling the rubble into 200-foot-high walls in the valleys. The material used for blasting is ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel—the same thing used to blow up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City—but stronger. Ten times stronger.
House goes on to itemize some of the other consequences of mountain-top removal: arsenic in drinking water, destruction of roads by overloaded trucks, polluted pond water, the threat of sludge dams collapsing, and air clouded by pollutants.
Those of us who protest mountaintop removal do it for the environment, but we’re also fighting to prove we are not unwarranted burdens. Our water and air are being poisoned, but the most dangerous toxin is the message that people don’t matter.
Which brings me to the debut novel by Carter Sickels, The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, $15), a searing, unsentimental story about a rural, tightly–knit community stripped of its humanity by greed and indifference, and the damaged few who still cling to the land they’ve called home for hundreds of years.
Once a heaven for the people who grew up, lived and worked there, Dove Creek, West Virginia, now looks more like hell. Smells like it, too, with the odor of “sulfur and scorched earth” lingering after the mining company explosions each day. After a decade of brutal mountain top removal, the constant blasting, flooding and pollution has driven the natives either out of their homes or out of their minds. Their water’s undrinkable, their houses are cracked beyond repair from the explosions, and the coal company’s offers for the now worthless land they own keep dropping.
But some still hold fast to this wasteland of dilapidated houses, dried-up wells, deserted churches, “shot-up road signs and little white crosses,” abandoned gas stations, and “scarred places where trees had been cleared for mining, like giant razor gashes across the land.” Double- and single-wide trailers house the human wreckage of a ruined community—including one Cole Freeman, a 27-year-old nursing home aide who has lived there all his life.
Raised by his grandparents when his mother abandoned him as a baby, Cole’s ties to the land—what’s left of the 20 acres his family has owned for generations—keep him determined to stick it out. His plans to escape crashed and burned ten years ago, and anyway, the business he’s run for several years—call it his night job—is profitable enough to convince him to stay.
At the nursing home where Cole works, the residents love him. He’s got a gentle touch with people as scarred and ravaged as the land surrounding them. Known them all since he was a kid, knows what they’ve been through, understands their quirks and tolerates their grievances. He remembers their names, stops to chat with them as he makes his rounds.
Larry Potts was parked in a wheelchair, twiddling his thumbs. He had thick meaty hands, but his thumbs twirled like little jewelry-box ballerinas. Scenes like this still managed to stop Cole in his tracks. He put his hands over Larry’s, felt his thumbs buzz against his palms like insect wings. Larry used to work the deep mines, crawling on his hands and knees in the dark.
He even maintains his own regular outreach program, driving up the mountainside to check on the house-bound elderly, bringing them food, cigarettes, and drinking water.
Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? for a 27-year-old nursing-home aide trapped in a hellhole. But Cole also remembers which patient owned which watch, ring, brooch and bracelet—every valuable he can steal when their backs are turned—that he unloads at the pawnshop after he gets off work.
The cash he makes comes in super handy during those outreach visits, because the helpless grandpas and grandmas he ferries necessities to are also his “suppliers,” selling him their unused prescription drugs for cash to pay their bills. Last stop: the local junkies and speed freaks, many of whom are former classmates and friends, to resell the pills that they’ll crush and snort.
The way Cole sees it, as long as no one “gets hooked,” and the old people who give up their meds feel no pain, “it wasn’t a bad thing, what he did. People needed him, counted on him. He gave them what they asked for.”
Besides, it’s not that different from the example his grandfather set, a Pentecostal preacher who once showed his grandson how to care for the “dying, the sick and the broken,” who taught him Bible verses and how to hear God’s voice up on top of the mountains: “God talks to you, but he don’t talk to your ears, he talks to your heart.”
Not that Cole’s ever heard it. Between his mother’s disappearance, the stutter he battled growing up, and a shameful secret he’s buried so deep it’s forgotten, he’s pretty sure God won’t be talking to him anytime soon. Yet Bible verses still run through his head during the lonely drives to his after-hours deals: “It was times like this, in the darkness and quiet, that the words sometimes returned, ghostly and pale like the Indian pipes hidden in the woods.”
Novels about Appalachia have to work hard to overcome hillbilly stereotypes—the methheads that have replaced moonshiners, the snake-handling Holy Rollers, the ignorant, the toothless, the isolated communities clinging to superstitions and ignorance. Sickels, who grew up in southeastern Ohio, close to neighboring West Virginia, has a unerring eye for the complex makeup of the men and women who still try to make a life in towns like Dove Creek.
Cole is a series of contrasts. He’s a thief and a drug-dealer, but also the unwitting pastor of his own makeshift church, the drugs his offerings, a pill book his Bible. His spare, unemotional tones reflect the resignation and bitterness of a man determined to go down with the ship, but he believes in the “world beyond this one” where there’s “more than a person could see just with his eyes.” Speech doesn’t come easy to him, but inside, his appreciation for the beauty around him erupts in flashes of concise poetry, as when he remembers how the mountains looked to him as a child: “Light shining through the tops of the trees; green moss on stumps; blooming foxglove and little pink azaleas, like teardrops.”
Other well-drawn characters—a gay ex-con caring for his dying landlady; Cole’s wild, long-lost mother, Ruby, with her “furious, lovely eyes” and hopes for a fresh start; and his former best friend, Terry, now deep into drugs—flesh out Cole’s “congregation,” which grows more needy and broken each day.
Over the course of a year, his grandfather dies, and Cole draws closer to his mother and to Terry, trying to administer to everyone while ignoring the cracks, like the now-splintered walls of his grandmother’s house, that have begun to appear in his own foundation. When events climax in exactly the kind of apocalyptic “evening hour” his grandfather predicted, Cole’s forced to choose between saving a dying community and saving himself.
I reviewed this book for the AJC a few weeks ago, but needed a do-over. Something about it eluded me; I wanted to talk about the way it left me wondering about how we heed—and by this creaky old-fashioned word, I mean listen or pay attention to—our conscience in a changing world. What happens when the place where you feel safe, in touch with yourself—where you sense that you’re watched over by some form of benevolence—is being destroyed?
For many years, I lived in a house here in Atlanta, set in the middle of a huge lot. Hundred-year-old water oaks shaded most of it, with four beautiful old beeches that lined the sidewalk out front. Something about that place spoke to me from the first night I spent there, recovering from the end of a marriage. I lay on the floor in the living room without a speck of furniture and watched the leaves fall past the windows and thought, Now I’m safe. While I lived there, my dreams talked to me and my heart sang every morning when I saw sunlight pouring through the back porch—about the only place it poured. I loved that place to death and it seemed to love me in return. I healed a rotten back problem by lying on the old, weird cement table that sat in the back yard, big enough for a human sacrifice.
When I left that house and those trees, I felt pretty sure, and I still do, that I was leaving something profoundly healing and important; it was like a second marriage.
So this is something of what I found in The Evening Hour. Whatever your beliefs, and whether you believe that God talks to us—in nature, in the places we know and love, in the people we see each day, in dreams—or not, it’s a novel that offers an aching glimpse of how to listen. I am still thinking about it, and still listening.
If you would like to read more about mountain-top removal, check out this thorough, extensive report by John McQuaid.