EARLY in "The Unquiet Earth," Denise Giardina's second novel set in the coal fields of West Virginia, star-crossed lovers Dillon Freeman and Rachel Honaker take in the current hit movie, "Wuthering Heights." During the anxious interval before the United States entered World War II, several popular films were produced, including "Gone With the Wind." But Dillon and Rachel prefer the bittersweet melodrama of Heathcliff and Cathy, as presented by Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.
The trip to the movies that Dillon and Rachel make is more than incidental time-fixing. Without disclosing the novel's ingenious turns of plot, it can be revealed that the author has employed the movie version of "Wuthering Heights" to interpret life in Justice County, a fictitious locale bordering Kentucky to the south, and McDowell County, an actual area of West Virginia, to the east.
By using the movie as a springboard, it seems as if Giardina is replying to those critics of her first Justice County fiction, "Storming Heaven" (1987), who objected to what they perceived as the artifice of strong plot surges. Within this new novel, she shows us that the tides of fortune are as swift as they are terrible.
Just as events and emotions forcefully erupt in the movie version of "Wuthering Heights," so, too, sudden tragedy haunts the coal fields. As in the movie, bonds of childhood friendship endure clashes of property and class. Within these ample parallels, Giardina is careful to discriminate the particularities of life. She adapts her personal experience of growing up in a West Virginia coal camp and consolidates it with extensive research into the fierce history of coal mining and its effects on the hill pe ople.
As the industry grows over the more than 50 years depicted in the novel, one witnesses the suspension of moral precepts, the weakening of family ties, the depopulation of hamlets, and the pollution of nature. In lesser hands, this desolate tale might have become another dreary homily on the fate of the planet. But "The Unquiet Earth" is powerfully realized through both the high drama of catastrophe and the everyday nuance of custom, language, and culture.
For example, Giardina's delineation of fragile teenage psyches caught up in the push-pull of mountain life and industrialization is especially moving. As much as Giardina sympathizes with the trials of her characters, she also realizes that elements of hill culture lessen effective resistance to the ravage of nature and community. Though worthy in themselves, kinship ties and intense independence may spur a distrust of politics and outsiders that can lead, as it does in "The Unquiet Earth," to violence.
Indeed, misunderstanding courses through this novel like veins of coal in a hillside. If the mountain people cannot fathom the immensity of destruction that abides in Justice County, neither can the mass media dispose of the cultural cliches with which they represent a region that they, and the federal government, dub Appalachia.
The book's vertiginous ending - to disclose it would truly be anticlimactic - teasingly plays off the conclusion of the movie version of "Wuthering Heights." Just as Heathcliff and Cathy are finally united on the desolate moors, so, too, Rachel and Dillon are, in a sense, joined on Trace Mountain.
But the raw brutality that makes the reunion possible is of such enormous scope that it purges any sense of romantic resolution. At the end of "The Unquiet Earth," one is left with the irony that life is too complex and crucial ever to imitate the neat closure of so much Hollywood art.