by Kevin Canty
W. W. Norton | March 2017
Hardcover: 256 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / Mine Disaster
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss
Really happened…In 1972, a fire broke out underground at the Sunshine Mine in Kellogg, Idaho; 91 men died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The disaster had a devastating effect on Kellogg and the nearby communities in Idaho’s Silver Valley. People who were there still vividly remember the events of that day. Source: NPR
Tom Wilkerson and Ron Flory were found 8 days after the fire and were the only survivors. Their story inspired this work of fiction.
When I first saw the title, The Underworld, and read the publisher’s blurb I made a wrong assessment that the book was a fantasy or science fiction. Somehow my brain latched on to the words – “none of the characters that populate the Underworld ever lived. . .” and made the leap to subterranean creatures never before seen.
In reality, the novel, inspired by true events, describes a hardscrabble life in a Colorado company-owned silver mining town in 1972. The cast of characters is small, mainly the Wright family and a few others. All residents are trapped; landlocked geographically, handcuffed by poverty and controlled by tradition. The company owns everything from the homes to the homeowners.
The story opens with David Wright, a college freshman, traveling from Missoula, Montana back to his hometown of Silverton, Colorado to attend a friend’s wedding. David’s easy drive from Missoula on the multi-lane highway ends when it bumps up against the mighty Camel’s Hump. Symbolically, and literally in David’s case, he puts chains on himself and the car’s tires before heading up the narrow mountain road toward home. Toward a place that the unimaginable has happened.
The day expires on the two-lane. . . the chains make a jingly sound that reminds David of Christmas and he sighs remembering all that was lost, everything slipping into the past. He is driving into the past. . .He moves through a whirling tunnel of snow, back and back and back.
From the moment you are born your life is predetermined here. If you are a woman, you will become a miner’s wife. If you are a miner, your son will be a miner and together you will descend daily into hell praying the mountain will spit you back out at the end of your shift.
There are few secrets in a mining town; much like Cheers, everyone knows your name. You develop deep bonds and friendships as everyone knows that one day, something is going to happen that will forever change things. The underworld. That cramped, damp, hot darkness of the mine fills all their lives; young and old alike.
Fear, the frayed high tension wire that connects everyone above ground as well as those a mile below hums in their consciousness day and night. It colors everything they think and do. Could today’s kiss good-bye in the morning be the last kiss? They drown their fear in alcohol and bravado. Most try to live loudly but there are those who withdraw into themselves creating a blank space where they smother feeling and emotion. They love, they hate, they fight, they pray…always aware they live on borrowed time.
It is no surprise that many dream of leaving but few have the courage to climb that mountain; it’s too scary to leave the devil you know for the one you don’t. Those that do leave are often pulled back by the bonds of family and the inability to understand and function in an uncontrolled outside world.
Then one day, it happens. . . 171 miners kissed their loved ones good-bye and headed to their underworld jobs. Life above ground followed normal routines. The instant the alarm was heard throughout the town, time stopped. The town’s worst nightmare had become a reality. Family and friends gather silently at the entrance of the mine and the long vigil begins. From that moment on, life will never be the same again in Silverton.
The fire will kill 91.
Whatever anyone thought they knew about themselves and how they would react to a mine disaster would prove to be wrong, Some will find the strength to start over, others will remain fixed in grief unable to restart a new life. This unfortunate town lost more than 91 souls, it lost its identity, its future. Somewhere, however, seeds of hope sprout for those willing to look for them.
In the difficult struggle to rise up, love will bloom and new friendships will be forged. Those finding the will to change have a bright new future ahead. Others, will remain focused on the loss and become alienated, bitter and unable to rise from the ashes.
I found this book a fast read. I guess I was drawn into the story by virtue of hearing about the local mine disaster near my home as a child. The story itself was told in simple terms, nothing floral or poetic, just told things in a manner that conveyed things as they probably would happen in real life.