FICTION
Clean Cole

Carter Sickels
The Evening Hour
(Bloomsbury, 2012)

Carter Sickels’s debut novel sweeps you into the doublewide-trailer world of a fictional contemporary Appalachian mountain community whose homes, land, water, and wildlife are shaken daily by the blasting of a corrupt coal mining company who is at work shearing off the community’s Blue Ridge mountaintops—along with their futures.

Most of us don’t think about how we get our energy; we simply expect our phones and lights and gadgets to work when we turn them on. But Sickels thinks hard about the things that many of us take for granted, dramatizing these issues in a compelling mystery that examines the effects of strip mining on the land and the individual.

The novel focuses on a community of old, poor, ex-coal miners and their drug-addicted descendants whose lives are upended by this coal company who uses draglines to mine deposits, dumps wastes into valleys and streams, and turns former hardwood forests into spray-on grass.

Enter Cole Freeman, a fearful, stuttering protagonist who supplements his nursing-home day job by stealing cash from his patients and selling F.D.A.-approved painkillers he’s taken from the elderly. Cole is haunted by the words of his snake-handling preacher grand-pappy, who raised his grandson on the Bible and attributes his grandson’s stuttering to his daughter’s sinfulness.

Cole believes his mother abandoned him and watches his community’s passive decline, believing that his refusal to sell his land to the coal company is an act of courage. Meanwhile, three generations of women try to stand up against the corporate interests and have hard wisdom to impart. Cole gets scolded by his grandmother when he tries to re-plaster cracks in his childhood home: “You can’t patch nothing up,” his grandmother tells him. “It’s not just the walls. They’ve done ruined the foundation. This house is sinking.”

The residents are pressured to sell their homes to the Heritage Coal Company who is actually poisoning their water well. Despite the company’s neighborly public relations campaign, Cole and the other residents watch stunned as water breaks out of a leaky dam that stores black hazardous gunk, saturates their homes, fills their streams, kills wildlife in their hollows, and drowns dogs and their owners in a devastating accident the company calls an “act of nature.”

But unlike hurricanes or tornadoes, the company’s severe cuts into Dove Mountain look much more like an act of man, forcing Cole to face his own existential crisis:

He wondered if they would die from drinking the water. The sludge had wiped out thousands of fish, crawfish, frogs, turtles, ducks. The day he’d been digging out the dead, he had seen a great blue heron with its toothpick legs half-stuck in the sludge, its wings folded and wet with the black lava.

These characters—especially the women—and the obstacles in their way and their determination to overcome those obstacles will make the reader turn the pages all the way to an ending that is every bit as surprising as it is inevitable.

Contributor

Diane T. Masucci

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