Book Review: ‘The Burying Man’

Posted by | April 1, 2013

In some other time or place a historical novel about a mountain preacher might have been titled ‘The Marrying Man,’ or ‘The Baptizing Man.’ But The Burying Man sets the reader into Depression-era Harlan, KY, where lethal labor strife leads to the county’s desperate coal mine wars. Funerals are an all too regular occurrence.

It’s May 1939. The mine operators in the fields of ‘Bloody Harlan’ have refused to sign a union shop contract with the United Mine Workers. The ensuing violence prompts Kentucky governor A. B. Chandler to send 900 troops from the Kentucky National Guard to restore order. They come, with machine guns and an armored tank.

The miners believe the Guard has been sent to reign in the violent thugs hired by the operators. That ‘s not the case at all. “Their commander, Lt. Col. J. Baldwin Smith,” The Burying Man tells us, “set the record straight when he was heard to scoff, ‘These damn miners thought we came here to help them.’”

The Burying Man’s main protagonist, Oakley ‘Mournful’ Grace, finds himself caught right in the center of the building storm.

The Burying Man was originally written by Cleudis Robbins, born in Colmar, KY in 1934. “He had been writing it for most of his life, scribbling on notebook pages, old receipts and backs of envelopes,” says his daughter Janene Nielsen, who stepped in 4 years ago to help her father pull the manuscript together into publishable form.

Robbins & Nielsen locate their story in the Harlan coal camp of Emerita. Emerita is but one of 12 such coal camps in the area, a fact we learn from local Sheriff Gibby, who’s taking bribes from coal operators in all 12 camps. However, the authors have wisely chosen to keep a concentrated focus on just one camp. The loves, strivings, betrayals, jealousies and joys of Emerita serve up a microcosm easily representative of the whole county.

The Burying Man plot hinges on the lifelong relationship of Mournful Grace, who is both a preacher and a miner, and his antithesis Cork Markham, son of a coal operator, recipient of a fancy far-off education, and heir-apparent to his father’s position. Despite having grown up as boyhood buddies, they are destined to cross swords.

When the reader first meets him, Mournful is a tongue-tied adolescent who can barely gather his thoughts enough to ask his sweetheart Evangeline to marry him. As the story unfolds, his oratory from the pulpit starts to shine. Finally, at a meeting with Markham over wages and working conditions, Mournful’s sense of justice, leadership and tact prove to be formidable tools in speaking on behalf of the miners.

Markham’s having none of it.  For him unionism is the same as communism. His response to the miners is merciless: “The coal operators stepped up evictions. Some families disappeared in the night like they had never existed. Others weren’t so lucky, like the miner was found tied to the rails of the L&N Railroad track. He had been clean cut in two. He was last seen in the custody of Deputy Rake Mullins. This atrocity was followed by the shooting death of Creed Brasher while working in a soup line to feed starving miners and their families.” As Markham’s cruelties become more numerous, so do his drunken binges on ‘Little Boys,’ moonshine that’s been packaged in recycled glass Coke bottles.

Death is ever-present in Mournful’s world. He watches as his first-born twin boys fade away, probably malnourished. His miner father dies in a cave-in. His wife Evangeline dies in childbirth, though not before she’s been raped, twice, by Cork Markham. Her brother Daniel is shot, then poisoned, by thugs hired by coal operators. Mournful’s next-door neighbor turns traitor against the miners, then double agent, and is finally shot by operator thugs in a drive-by. Mournful’s brother Top is ax murdered by a wife who’s been cheating on him. We know from the novel’s first page that Mournful’s daughter Bud, who serves as the omniscient third person narrator throughout the book, will die, though not till the story’s surprising end do we learn how.

Authors Robbins & Nielsen provide an antidote for all the bloodshed and sadness in the form of minor characters such as Baby Ray and Longneck, who appear to be carefully modeled on the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern characters in ‘Hamlet.’ Like Shakespeare’s bumbling assassins, Baby Ray and Longneck puff up their talk to appear intimidating, and can in fact be dangerous in spite of themselves. But they are fools too often drunk on moonshine, easily confused and outwitted, and lacking any real courage.

In one scene they decide to sneak up to Keziah Grimwood’s mountain home under cover of darkness and steal some of her moonshine. Keziah, a Melungeon granny woman familiar with the art of black magic, knows shape shifting. When the two would-be thieves hear the howls of panthers and the growls of angry dogs all around them, they go tumbling down the mountainside one over the other. “Much as Keziah enjoyed spooking those boys, she didn’t follow them off the mountain.” They reappear near the book’s denouement as linchpin figures in the death of Mournful’s daughter Bud.

Nan Potter, Cork Markham’s office assistant, is another side character who provides the reader with a Falstaffian relief from the relentless horrors swirling through Emerita.  She’d “tell you her life story without being asked, and start in all over again when she finished. Nan had the habit of avoiding people’s eyes as she talked — not because she was shy or even dishonest as most people thought, but rather because she was sneaky, sly.” She’s in the middle of a long gossipy digression, when “About that time Nan’s flatulence caught up with her and she let one go. ‘Ain’t that a lonesome sound?’ she said, grinning.”

The Burying Man is peppered with numerous Appalachian folk wisdoms —“Fact is, a branch from the witch hazel tree in the hands of one who knows how to use it has the power to find water running underground” — plus carefully observed details of daily living during the Depression — “Many a night neighbors used to gather on the Wilder’s stoop to listen [on the radio] to the likes of ‘The Lone Ranger,’ ‘The Shadow,’ and the ‘Grand Ole Opry.’” These specificities help to anchor The Burying Man in Appalachia, imbuing it with a sense of the genuine.

The novel is occasionally marred by grammatical glitches: “Then without warning the coal-plumed creatures took to flight like the lifting of a dark cloud and with them something of Evangeline’s unease.” Or: “She stood in the yard watching Mournful’s slow approach hating the birds singing in a nearby tree.”

The Burying Man is told in a vernacular style, but sometimes the authorial voice (less folksy, more saavy) bleeds through: “Seated next to him was another reprobate, Baby Ray Wilkins.” Or: “Evangeline was a pretty girl who was spared the indignities of real beauty.”

However, the grammar/voice issues are mere blemishes. Solid plotting, well-rounded character development, and good vs. evil themes make for a stirring read. The Burying Man is published by Beans Fork Group LLC and is available at Amazon.com.

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