Short Review of The Miner's Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas
by Tina L. Hanlon
Laskas, Gretchen Moran. The Miner's Daughter. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
This compelling young adult historical novel follows Laskas' A Midwife's Tale, a highly acclaimed 2003 novel for adults about a young woman who grows up learning midwifery from her mother. In The Miner's Daughter, Willa Laura Lowell is age 16 when Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected President in 1932. The novel ends fourteen months later with a New Year's party attended by Eleanor Roosevelt at Arthurdale, a new town established under the New Deal for West Virginia homesteaders who needed jobs and decent homes and schools. The governmental experiment provided escape from the poverty and disease of mining towns where men could not count on steady mining or farming work and miners' families had no rights or reliable health care. Willa's older half-brother is interested in politics and helping to start unions for miners.
The lives of both their parents are threatened by the mother's difficult pregnancy and the father's illness after working on the Hawk's Nest Tunnel at the New River (a real disaster where many men died from injury and exposure to silica). Willa deals with hunger, grueling housework when her mother is ill and the family is destitute, and gender bias when she wants to work at harvesting food as men and boys do in summer. Friendship with a mission worker from Fairmont gives Willa access to books, a sympathetic confidant, a visit to Fairmont, and an introduction to Eleanor Roosevelt. Willa longs for books and schooling, but Laskas shows that deserving heroines do not always find easy solutions when new opportunities arise. It is ironic that living in greater ease with access to school doesn't work out for Willa at first because the teacher's methods don't suit her. Later Willa's hopes are hampered by prejudice when her best friend's and boyfriend's families, as well as African Americans who helped her when no one else would, are excluded from Arthurdale because they are of foreign descent. Willa develops an interest in writing, which can help her protest against the injustice in her society.
The author's father's family had moved to Arthurdale in the 1940s and Willa's bleak town of Riley Mines is based on various West Virginia coal camps. Willa and her family discuss the environmental devastation in their town caused by mining practices such as cutting trees to brace the mines and releasing soot from coke ovens. References to historical background are provided at the end of the novel.
See a review by Sarah A. Wood at Teens Read at this link.
Review by Safia Abdul reprinted from TeenReadsToo, 2007
See an interview with the author at Appalachian History web site.
Interview with the author by Bella Stander
2008 review in blog Dust Bowl History: A Geographical Exploration of the 1930's, by Rebecca L. Berg
Karen Coats reviewed the novel in Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books, vol. 60, May 2007, p. 374. Available through library services such as Project Muse.
This book and other novels and picture books are discussed in this article: Hanlon, Tina L. “Struggles for Life, Liberty, and Land: Mining Communities in Appalachian Children’s Books.” Southern Quarterly: A Journal of Arts and Letters in the South, vol. 54, Spring/Summer 2017, pp. 94-113.
The Arthurdale Community School: Education and Reform in Depression Era Appalachia, by Sam F. Stack, Jr. Place Matters: New Directions in Appalachian Studies Series. University Press of Kentucky, 2015. "The first book-length study of the well-known educational experiment, The Arthurdale Community School illuminates the institution’s history, influence, and impact." See more details from publisher at this link.
"Perhaps, [Willa] thought, there is always a mark, when another person touches you, an invisible thread connecting you to them. Even when she walked back to the cabin with all the clothes in her arms, so little, it seemed, for a family of six with another on the way, Willa could still feel where her mother's gentle hand had been" (chap. 1).
"'Not a good place for animals. Plants neither.' For years, Mama had tried to put in a garden, but less grew every year in the hard, gritty ground. Willa could remember when there had been a few trees scattered about, left over from when they built the town, but over the years the men had cut them down, using the timber to brace the mine when the company would not. During the boom years, when the coke ovens were going full blast, the air had been so heavy with soot that not even birds flew over then. (pp. 8-9). In their town "the trees were gone and the earth was bare" (p. 223).
Miss Grace urges Willa to borrow Little Women: "Willa took the book in both hands. She thought about how delightful it would be to read when the house was quiet. Maybe Mama would like to hear her read out loud. If she was very careful not to splash, Willa could read as she did the laundry, or the supper dishes. Even if she couldn't get down to Miss Grace's new library soon, she would still have this book for a few days" (chap. 7).
Willa had never sounded out her whole name before, but she, too, liked the way it sounded when she said the whole thing, Willa Laura Lowell. She imagined going into a post office, or even the company store, where telegrams were sent and received. "Anything for Willa Laura Lowell?' she would ask. Why, she could be anyone at all, someone important, with a name like that" (chap. 8).
"She hurried, for she couldn't wait to read the poem again, ten times, a hundred times even. It's only words, she told herself, but her racing heart knew they were much more....Words are powerful...now she realized just how powerful words could be when they were written down for someone else to read. Even when the words aren't about something real. Eldorado might not be a place you could go, but the journey of the knight was true enough....
Willa listed all of the words she heard every day in Riley Mines: Miss Grace's thoughts, Mama's stories, Roselia's tales. Someone should write them down, Willa said to herself. Someone needs to make them true" (chap. 8).
"She didn't understand at all. If a family needed food and she was strong enough to earn it, why couldn't she get on the truck like the men and older boys did?" (chap. 11).
"Even with the mines open, there was no gaiety about it as there had been last year with the election coming on. Everyone knew the busy time would be short and sweet—just enough to sink your teeth into before winter came and the companies pulled out again" (chap. 14).
"Willa found herself turning to poems for strength, for a way of helping her sort out her whirling feelings" (chap. 14).
"Willa started to laugh, but stopped. The idea was ridiculous, of course—even for one so taken with the Roosevelts as Ves was. No presidents's wife was ever going to come to Riley Mines....
'But she had the kindest eyes, Daddy. You just felt better when she was there, homely or not'" (chap. 14).
"I sometimes think the dust you breathe in makes you part of the mine itself. I feel like the mountain is part of me" (Willa's brother Ves on p. 228).
"She could hear the man in the shiny suit who had sat in the Lowell cabin only a few days ago, asking if everyone in the household was 'native born.' She hadn't thought about it at the time; she hadn't known how important the question was that he was asking" (chap. 16).
"Ask them if the government couldn't do something, they tell you that it isn't any of the government's business—they'll call you socialist, as if fighting for a decent standard of living for all people isn't part of the equality that the Declaration of Independence was all about" (chap. 16).
"But you know what everyone in West Virginia calls me? Rose-ELL-ee-ah. Why? Because you folks can't be bothered to even try to say it correctly if you think it sounds too foreign.... I changed my name so I would be more American.... Willa Lowell, but don't you ever forget that no matter where my family came from, I'm as American as you are" (Willa's friend Roselia in chap. 16).
"Every day, Willa learned something about the house that made it easy to love. For the first time, she could imagine herself as a character in a novel, a person who lived in a place worth calling home" (chap. 17).
"This flag stands for equality for all Americans, but I know we are a long way from that dream" (chap. 17).
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