Rednecks: A Novel

Image of Rednecks: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 14, 2024
St. Martin's Press
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“a fighting novel, and one with a great heart.”

Taylor Brown’s Rednecks brings to life one of those rare episodes of American class warfare in his passionate, new novel, based on the 1921 “Battle of Blair Mountain” in Appalachian West Virginia.

In that episode, 10,000 desperate coal miners took up arms against the forces of “King Coal,” who were determined to crush efforts by the workers to organize with the United Mine Workers of America. The multi-racial, multi-ethnic miners had been working for low wages, under deadly conditions, to the point of desperation.

But the operators had the West Virginia government under their thumb, from top to bottom, and ordered local and state law enforcement—and ultimately the U.S. Army and the nascent Army Air Corps—to help crush the union’s efforts, the justice system notwithstanding. Together with an army of private detectives—"gun thugs” they were called—and local vigilantes, the coal operators used mass firings, evictions, beatings, and murder to break the union.

When one of the few local law enforcement officers who is sympathetic to the workers is shot down while unarmed on the steps of a county courthouse, the miners have had enough. They mobilize and begin marching up Blair Mountain enroute to a town that is a company stronghold, led by a corrupt and brutal sheriff. Anything but racist, they are nicknamed “rednecks” for the red bandanas they wear to recognize each other as they fight their way up the laurel-covered slopes. Over a million bullets are fired in the battle.

Unlike many historians, novelists are free to take a side in their accounts: in fiction, point of view is often everything. Brown’s unabashed point of view is that of the miners. In some ways, Rednecks is a throwback, a modern iteration of the proletarian novels of the 1930s.

In his concluding Author’s Note, Brown writes that the Battle of Blair Mountain has remained a “shadowy space” in our history. “I believe it is the fictioneer’s work to cast the light of imagination into such shadowy spaces, to bring them alive, and this I have endeavored to do.”

Rednecks represents a departure for Brown, whose previous five novels, like The Gods of Howl Mountain and The River of Kings, evince little in the way of explicit politics or ideology. This time he wears his politics on his pages, without apology or qualification. One of the characters sympathetically portrayed is Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, an icon to industrial workers. The workers’ anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” is sung numerous times in the narrative.

The circumstances surrounding the Blair Mountain battle, while little known, have provided fodder for other works of fiction, notably Denise Giardina’s novel Storming Heaven, and John Sayles’ classic film, Matewan, both of which appeared in 1987.

At a critical point in Rednecks, a boy asks his doctor father: Who is responsible for the squalor the miners lived in, and the violence turned against them? Trying to be objective, but clearly failing, he replies: “The coal operators, the politicians, the state police, the county vigilantes. Money became influence, influence became policy, policy became force. And the miners were no saints, meeting violence with violence.”

Rednecks’ narrative is infused with a sense of foreboding and doom that the battle will not end well for the workers, just as it hadn’t in Pennsylvania with the miners called Molly Maguires in the 1860s and 1870s. No surprise there. Without being too didactic, when monopoly capital combines with the armed power of the state, the outcome is virtually foreordained.

Rednecks is not a perfect novel. At times, the prose becomes overheated, and there are a handful of linguistic anachronisms. But it is a fighting novel, and one with a great heart.