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Review of Susan Kushner Resnick’s Goodbye Wifes and Daughters

University of Nebraska 2011

By Debbie Hagan

Of late, I’ve become a little obsessed in reading about early twentieth century mines. It began with a family tree and a couple of lines found in a 1906 newspaper regarding the closing of the Teddy Roosevelt Mine in Alba, Missouri: “The mine is where Frank Henley lost his life last week and three other mine workers were crippled for life by a cave-in from the roof.”
 
It’s just a two-inch story, drowning in a sea of gray type, tucked below the big story: a lightning strike that burned down a barn. Research shows me that turn-of-the-century mine cave-ins, accidents, and even death occurred with such regularity they barely ranked as news.

Only when I saw Henley’s name perched on my family tree next to my great-grandfather’s with this tiny subscript notation “died in mine,” did I become interested in a life spent in the throat of darkness.

Frankly I couldn’t picture it until I read Susan Kushner Resnick’s book, Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, a carefully researched narrative of a 1943 mining town, Bear Creek, Montana. It was an all-American town, at the foothills of the Rockies, complete with high school sweethearts, basketball games, and bigger-than-life Andy Hardy dreams. Even the mine possesses a type of macho romanticism, which D.H. Lawrence describes in Sons and Lovers, as a young girl considers her boyfriend’s profession: "She realized the life of the miners, hundreds of them toiling below earth and coming up at evening. He seemed to her noble. He risked his life daily, and with gaiety."

Gaiety?  Hardly.  As Resnick shows, miners slaved, suffered devastating injuries, and gruesomely died. If their spirits lifted, it was only because they had surfaced uninjured and headed home for dinner. Simply put, mining provided a steady paycheck, and as the needs for coal increased, after the US involvement in World War II, retired (or soon-to-be-retired) miners returned to the mines often working extra long or double shifts. Sure they liked the extra money, but they did it to help the cause--help the boys fighting overseas.

Smith Mine didn’t hand out employee appreciation badges, but treated its miners more like tools--functional, replaceable, and forgettable. Even when state inspectors tagged Smith as “gassy” and insisted on more ventilation, rescue equipment, and better control over combustible coal dust, Smith paid no attention. It ordered miners to dig another air shaft--just to get the state off its back--but abandoned the project before completion. Rescue equipment never came, and management dismissed any idea of neutralizing coal dust. Thus, on February 27, 1943, the Smith Mine exploded and filled with gas.

Little could be done to save anyone, and the miners knew it; thus, one scratched onto his helmet, “goodbye wifes and daughters.” Gas masks and ventilators had to be retrieved from other mines. By the time they arrived, seventy-five men had died.
 
Resnick creates a powerful, page-turning narrative that feels like a peek into America’s past, but shockingly has more relevancy to the present than most of us would like to believe. In 2010, Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, exploded killing twenty-nine miners. Investigation showed that management had ignored repeated warnings of poor ventilation and inadequate gas control. James Joyce wrote, “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” One would only hope the mining industry would use these portals to improve, rather than continue to dodge the system.

 


Debbie Hagan is Brevity’s book review editor and also managing editor of New England Home. Her essay on the Boston art scene will appear in 100 Boston Artists, to be published in 2012 by Schiffer Publishing.