Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: Judith Miller's The Chapel Car Bride

The Chapel Car Bride is history lens recollecting the times as a sentimental cushion. It would be one thing if Judith Miller didn't share in her biography she is a history buff, but since she does I have to pop the bubble. The absence of New River in the descriptions of West Virginia to the vague mentions of "strikes and unions" leave the reader with an unclear picture of West Virginia and the struggles of the poor.  The way people interacted in the book isn't even realistic to human nature. Perhaps, that is the appeal, but is it healthy?

Summary: With her penchant for seeing the best in everyone, Hope Irvine sees a world full of good people in hard places. When her father accepts a position traveling in a chapel car as an on-the-rail missionary, she is determined to join him in his efforts and put her musical skills to good use by serving the mining families of West Virginia, saving their souls, and bettering their lives.

Luke Hughes shares Hope's love of music and her love of God, but as a poor miner he knows he can offer her no future. Still, the notes she sings resonate in his heart. When she begins to travel with a young mine manager to neighboring counties, Luke can hardly suppress his jealousy. It isn't until he begins to suspect these missions of mercy might be the mine manager's cover for illegal purposes, though, that Luke feels justified in speaking up. But how can he discover the truth without hurting Hope or, worse, putting her in danger?

When we traveled to West Virginia it wasn't just the scenic mountains that caught our attention, but more so the beautiful rivers flowing through the state. Whether you've been to the state capital, Charleston, which is near the beautiful New River Gorge, or you're in Morganton, there is a river to be seen in many of the major cities. It makes a beautiful sight among the mountains. You can imagine this struck as odd there wasn't the mention of any of other features of West Virginia since it has much more than mountains. The characters spend a lot of time always having to walk uphill to continually remind us it's a mountainous terrain, but there is just enough flat land to grow a huge, profitable cornfield to not only feed their family but also sell to moonshiners if they need extra money. There is even a moonshiner, Alvin, who is making use of the corn to make moonshine with, and yet claims he is struggling to feed his children. Then stop taking the corn, Alvin! 

Alvin says on page 132, "When we're not down at the mine, most of us got to look for other ways to earn a few dollars to feed our young'uns." (The "other ways" are moonshine.)
Hope's father on page 209, "I can't blame any of the men who ar selling their corn. They need money to care for their families, and they aren't going to ask questions if someone is willing to buy their whole crop - especially at a higher price than they're used to getting."  
 If they are selling their whole crop then how are they feeding their families? Why would someone give you money for crops you could have eaten yourself to then have to go spend it on food you just sold? Many people in Appalachian old times found a variety of ways to survive on corn by making it a few types of ways including cornbread. If corn was the big deal in Finch, WV, then where is the grist mill? There are many throughout West Virginia.

We also hear a lot about "strikes and unions" in the book. It's always mentioned in that regard. The miners are wary of outsiders that come into town for fear they are either there to provide a cheaper option for the company, or they want to talk to workers about organizing a strike. If there is one thing history shows it's that miners weren't hesitant to strike. There were major strikes in 1897, 1902, and in 1919. The strikes didn't always lead to unionizing, but they did usually end with better places of employment for the miners, which the book never mentions. Instead by the end of the book a new and better owner steps in who rids the community of being beholden to the company store and allows them income for better housing and a safer place. While there were paternalistic owners of mining towns in the heyday, this downplays the severity of abuse the previous owner had his workers living in. The miners don't save themselves in this book instead they need a white knight. Miners didn't want a hero to save them. They wanted to be treated as they felt they were owed.

No one is portrayed realistically to human nature as indicated by the previous paragraph on miners. Then there are the two leads, Luke and Hope. Luke's father has died in the unsafe mines, and now he is the male who has to help feed his mother and siblings by working in the mines. The manager has been cutting his hours, and he is the least superiority putting him at a higher risk of being cut. If you were Luke would you be losing sleep over struggling to help feed your family or potentially dying in a mine or Hope deciding to spend time with his male rival in the book?

Luke answers this question on page 209, "Just tired. Didn't sleep too good last night." That much was true. He never slept well on the nights before Hope and Nellie were leaving with Kirby, and last night had been no different." 

Then there is Hope. There are so many character issues with Hope. The simplest attribute is the character is naive in the worst of ways. She puts people in danger and is out of touch with life. Near the climax of the book Hope has to make the critical decision of whether to continue delivering children church supplies to surrounding towns with Kirby, or keeping the miner's talks of unionizing and striking private from Kirby? Kirby knows she depends on him to do that work and if she doesn't confide then he could snatch it away.  Kirby particularly wants her to be watchful of Luke after he shares the miners don't trust the company fixed the ventilation system properly.

Kirby says on page 215, "Don't get all upset with me, but I've heard Luke is involved in the movement and is encouraging other men to join in." His jaw twitched. "There's talk that they've been meeting out near the Hughes cornfield. I don't know that to be a fact just yet, but I do know the Bible instructs workers to be loyal to their employers. What these men are doing goes against the Bible's teachings, and that's why I'm asking you to help me find out as much as you can." 

Hope is flabbergasted by his proposal, but she feels threatened. Did anyone propose to Hope though that if the miners died of lack of proper ventilation she wouldn't have many people to deliver to in the future anyways?

Another historical element missing are breaker boys. The kids are briefly mentioned having gone to school, but boys age 8-12 were required to work at mines sorting coal by hand up till the 1920s. The work of a breaker boy was one of the most unimaginable, terrifying experiences you can imagine a kid experiencing.

 John Spargo describes the life of a breaker boy in 1906, "Work in the coal breakers is exceedingly hard and dangerous.....From the cramped position (the boys) have to assume, most of them become more or less deformed and bent-backed like old men. When a boy has been working for some time and begins to get round-shouldered, his fellows say that, 'He's got his boy to carry round wherever he goes.'
The coal is hard, and accidents to the hands, such as cuts, broken, or crushed fingers, are common among the boys. Sometimes there is a worse accident: a terrified shriek is heard, and a boy is mangled and torn in the machinery, or disappears
in the chute to be picked out later smothered and dead. Clouds of dust inhaled by the boys lay the foundations of asthma." (More information at Snohomish County Labor Council)

 Then there is Hope organizing and leading children churches. She is concerned about the kid's getting the books the church association has sent for her to deliver, but not a word is mentioned about the conditions kids in coal mining towns lived in. If Hope had that sort of passion for the children wouldn't she have noticed the breaker boys in Finch, WV?

The Chapel Car Bride is trying to be a light romance in a tough, dark setting. History is detracted from to make it feel good. I could go on and on. Don't forget that the ethnic makeup of miners was diverse, and these all read as white, Appalachian people. I don't believe the Italians or Irish would've quite talked like the people in this book. There were also African-Americans who moved to West Virginia to work in the mines, and they usually were given the lowest positions. (More information at West Virginia Encyclopedia)  The ethnic and racial division was one of the biggest ways companies utilized diffusing strikes from happening. (More information at PBS) If you want to write a romance story then there are ways to do that without involving history, especially when the history involves bad mistreatment of the poor, the very people Jesus championed. History was omitted in many circumstances to make it easier to solve than it was and it sacrificed needed depth.

This book was provided by Bethany House in exchange for a review. 

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