April Read of the Month: “To the Bones,” by Valerie Nieman

Valerie Nieman

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Edgy suspense, Scottish paranormal legend, and a beautiful river transformed into a wicked orange brew—these ingredients in the skilled hands of journalist Valerie Nieman create a whip-smart novel, To the Bones (West Virginia University Press, 2019). The story presents a classic hero’s quest in which an ordinary person discovers new strengths and wisdom by facing adversity and challenges.

One of the story’s outstanding accomplishments is its ability to quickly draw readers into an ordinary man’s life upended by a horrifying experience. The last thing government auditor Darrick MacBrehon remembers is getting off the Interstate for gas somewhere in West Virginia. When he regains consciousness, he is surrounded by “Horrible smell. Dark. Cold.” Gradually, he determines his head is bleeding profusely, and he is in some sort of pit surrounded by skeletons. This paper-pushing loner passes the first test in his quest to survive by pounding some of the femurs into the dirt, the spikes creating a ladder he uses to climb out of what would surely have become his grave.

Every good hero has to find an ally. Darrick’s is Lourana, who manages the “Mountaineer Sweepstakes,” a conglomeration of virtual slot machines in Redbird, West Virginia. Understandably, Lourana is wary when this vile-smelling, bleeding stranger stumbles into her establishment, yet she is unable to dismiss Darrick’s odd tale. Strange things have been happening in Redbird. Her own daughter disappeared over a year ago without a trace—and Lourana is determined to find out what happened to her.

A hero must also confront at least one villain. Redbird offers a few candidates. First, there are corrupt police. Then there’s the Kavanaugh family, owners of Kavanaugh Coal and Limestone, polluters who control most jobs in town and most of the land. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear the Kavanaughs derive their power from other sources as well. The family harbors secrets, including the source of dangerous pollution in the formerly beautiful Broad River and the reason no one is ever invited into their mansion.

Although the townspeople urge Darrick to leave Redbird and return to his comfort zone in Washington, D.C., he is driven to uncover the reason he was thrown into the pit. Who else died down there—and why? What are the Kavanaughs hiding? And most of all, Darrick knows the man who clawed his way out of that pit is not the same man who was left there to die. What is the true nature of the powers he has developed—and can he control them? Lourana and Darrick join forces to uncover the truth about all the strange happenings in Redbird.

Predictably, Lourana and Darrick develop a romantic connection. Nieman’s poetic technique shimmers in one particularly lovely image as Darrick watches Lourana undress: “As she stretched her arms high, the ladder of her ribs shone in the morning light. A man might climb to heaven, he thought.”

Strong verbs and imagery also work well in descriptions of the Kavanaughs and their ancestral home. A particularly apt verb elevates this description of the mansion: “There was no mistaking it, a gray stone manor house magicked from some British promontory and set down among the worn hills of West Virginia.” There is magic afoot, indeed. Poetic technique also enlivens character descriptions. For example, the Kavanaugh’s butler “seemed to gleam like the silver he must polish endlessly.” The Kavanaugh brothers are contrasted effectively. The eldest, Eamon, “looked like the raw rock of a mountain crag and even sounded like one, his voice like stones breaking loose and tumbling.” Cormac, the weaker brother, is a poet. Periodically, Nieman uses short passages of lyrical prose penned by “CBK,” unidentified by full name, but as the novel unfolds it becomes clear Cormac is the author. One mystical passage, “The Voice of the Mountain,” speaks of “the power of black rocks that remembered when they were light.”

Nieman entwines Scottish legends and suspense into this story so thoroughly that readers could be forgiven for not noticing immediately that the underlying focus is Acid Mine Drainage, or AMD. AMD is the primary cause of pollution in the Mid-Atlantic States, resulting primarily from abandoned or active coal mines designed with gravity drainage to prevent water accumulation. Increased acidity occurs when water flows over sulfur-bearing rocks. Over 4,500 miles of streams in the mid-Atlantic have been affected by AMD.

The suspenseful plot and environmental themes could have worked beautifully in this novel without the addition of paranormal elements. In fact, the novel might have been stronger without the supernatural, which had the unwanted effect of catapulting this reader out of the story world, particularly toward the end. However, Nieman’s skill at the novel’s beginning hooked me—and kept me reading even though I couldn’t appreciate Darrick’s and Eamon’s superpowers. The reality of AMD is horrifying enough. That said, blending popular genres like horror and mystery into an environmental disaster story possibly exposes a wider audience to the importance of clean water and energy. And perhaps literary purpose lurks behind Eamon’s superpowers. A coal baron, he “sucks the life out of everything,” analogous to the way coal extraction drains life from the miners, the way coal barons take the resources of the land for themselves and leave the community poorer, and the way all of us as carbon consumers extract the life from coal, which is, after all, compressed and heated former living things. Kudos to Nieman for her creativity and vision as she tackled these vital environmental themes.

Nieman is a professor of English at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. A former journalist and farmer in West Virginia, she is the author of three novels, as well as collections of poetry and short fiction. Titles include Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse; Hotel Worthy; Wake, Wake, Wake; Neena Gathering, Fidelities, and Blood Clay, which won Eric Hoffer Prize in General Fiction. She was a 2013-2014 North Carolina Arts Council poetry fellow, and has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as major grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her awards include the Greg Grummer, Nazim Hikmet, and Byron Herbert Reece poetry prizes. Nieman graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte.

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