A Compelling Tale of A Woman Coal Miner

IN the brief prologue to her first novel, Barbara Angle, a former West Virginia coal miner, indicates the autobiographical origins of the story about to unfold:

``Remembered pain has its value, confirming a prior existence. But I cannot get too close. I am older now, more vulnerable.... Hence, a buffer, the invulnerable third person, will speak to you. Her name is Portia Crowe.''

Portia, the heroine of ``Those That Mattered,'' grows up in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia, the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners. She is 14 when the novel begins.

In Cogan's Bluff, most wives, like Portia's mother, Ida, find solace in the church while their husbands tend to congregate at Whetzel's, the local bar. Sent there regularly by her mother to shame her father into heading home, Portia comes to feel at home among the men, listening to their stories about work and their arguments over the best way to improve conditions.

Portia's adolescence coincides with the 1960s. Times are getting harder: Coal is not as important a fuel source as it once was, and the union is no longer as able to protect the wages and safety of its members. Yet, while there is little reason to be hopeful, there is still vitality in these hills.

Barbara Angle describes the harsh life of a coal town with a kind of raw lyricism born of love and sorrow: ``In Appalachia's world, sulfur paints streambeds into a dull orange that mocks fool's gold. Heavy rain sometimes washes the dust away, turning the ground brackish. Women spend a goodly amount of time desperately seeking the color white. Dirt congeals in the eyes and grit in the teeth. Miners are tolerant of these discomforts.''

For, despite the hard work and dangerous conditions, there is something about the miners' life that holds these people to it: something about the mountains in which they live, something about the strangeness of tunneling below the earth's surface, spending lantern-lighted days in a world darker than night.

Portia is her father's daughter. One Christmas, she persuades him to take her down into the mine. Her father's words on this occasion are prophetic: ``Workin' in a hole underground ain't natural. The weird thing is you get likin' it, cravin' it.... Coal fever, they call it....''

As a young woman, Portia craves books - and a handsome young man who is planning to become an Evangelical preacher. Although she does not share his religious convictions, his grace and beauty have a powerful effect on her emotions. After leaving home to attend college on a scholarship, Portia returns to Cogan's Bluff. Her father has been killed there in a mining accident.

Opportunities to use her college training in journalism are nonexistent. Marriage to the handsome evangelist, motherhood, and a job teaching recalcitrant students at the local school leave Portia restless and unsatisfied. She is drawn to the coal mines and becomes one of the first women to work in this dangerous terrain. The treatment dished out by her resentful male co-workers proves in many ways rougher and more menacing than the work itself. Her new job also turns out to be the last straw that breaks her already shaky marriage. Yet, she endures.

Angle portrays the bitter hardships of Portia's life without a trace of self-pity. And, beyond this novel's value as an expose of conditions in coal mines, it is also a compelling account of the needs and desires that drive Portia - and others like her - to take on the challenges and accept the risks that they do.

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