“Blood Creek,” by Kimberly Collins

Kimberly Collins

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Kimberly Collins deftly plants the vicious Paint-Creek/Cabin Creek coal wars at the heart of the first installment in her Mingo Chronicles historical series. The novel is titled Blood Creek (Blue Mingo Press, 2019). While the West Virginia and Kentucky mine wars have been the focus of both fiction and nonfiction, Collins is one of several writers recently to focus on women and their roles in the conflicts. Real people as well as invented ones inhabit the pages of this engrossing story, including a major player, Tom Chafin. Collins was able to interview Chafin’s grandsons to lend personal perspective to the novel.

Although the novel employs multiple viewpoints, Ellie Chafin—Tom’s beautiful, restless, adulterous wife—stars in this tale. As the novel opens, Ellie is already involved with the town’s police chief, Walter Musick, who is married to her best friend, Mary. Both women are pregnant. When Walter arrives at the Chafin home, with the mayor in tow, supposedly to arrest Tom but more likely intending to kill him, Tom kills them both instead. Tom hides out with help from his uncle, the renowned Devil Anse Hatfield, but eventually he surrenders. He serves time in Moundsville State Penitentiary. This much of the family drama is historically accurate, and to give away more of Tom’s story would spoil the fun of reading the outcome for yourself.

A great strength of the novel is the relationship between Ellie, her sister Jolene, and cousin Polly. All three married miners. Under Granny Cline’s guidance, they grew up close, so close they shared a secret language and swore vows: “We will kill for each other, if we must / Bone to Bone, dust to dust.” Those vows are put to the test as the town shuns Ellie for her role in the adultery that led to murder. Polly takes Ellie and her newborn into her own home. The bonds of these three women tie the strands of the story together even more tightly as the miners go on strike and the coal operators bring Baldwin-Felts agents to town to enforce the companies’ interests by whatever means they deem necessary.

The complexity of Ellie’s character is another one of the novel’s greatest strengths. She abandons her baby, leaving little Deanie with Polly. To escape—and to find excitement—Ellie flees to Charleston, West Virginia’s capital, where she takes up with Baldwin-Felts detective John Havers. John pays for her room in the elegant Ruffner Hotel, buys her fancy gowns and jewels, and slaps her around in jealous, drunken fits. She contemplates leaving him for some other wealthy man, but she has an ulterior motive for staying. To protect Jolene and Polly, their husbands and the striking miners, she is passing information about the coal operators and Baldwin-Felts agents along to the miners. Besides pumping John for the operators’ plans, Ellie befriends Baldwin-Felts’ wives and plies them for anything they have overheard their husbands discussing. There is no doubt she is risking her life by spying. She is also risking at least a beating if not death at John’s hands if he discovers she is cheating on him with Sammy, the young musician who loves her. Yet she also admits she likes the lavish lifestyle—probably too well to run off with Sammy. The push and pull of Ellie’s emotional turmoil enlivens the novel.

Not that the real events aren’t lively enough. The coal company evicts the miners and their family from their homes. They set up a tent city where heat and sanitation are nonexistent, leading to many illnesses and deaths. The governor declares martial law. The Felts agents fire a Gatling gun into the tent city, indiscriminately striking men, women, and children. The renowned union organizer Mother Jones comes to Charleston to intervene on the miner’s behalf.

There are perhaps too many faces streaming tears even though the events would have caused many a tear to fall. Understatement might have better served the story in some cases. And perhaps there are a few too many dropped g’s at the end of words. The heavy use of dialect like “your’n” feels overdone at times. Those minor irritants didn’t keep me from thoroughly enjoying this deep-dive into West Virginia’s history and looking forward to the next installment, to be titled Massacre. The notorious events at Matewan will provide the dramatic backdrop for Ellie Musick in that one. I can’t wait to see what comes next. Will she end up with Sammy—or find another fancy man? Will Tom stay away from southern West Virginia? Will Jolene continue her activism?

Collins grew up in Matewan, home of the Hatfield and McCoy feud and the legendary Matewan Massacre that sparked right in the middle of downtown in 1920. She lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a number of years and then moved to the Washington, DC, area for seventeen years. Currently, she resides in Knoxville.

The author says this in an interview: “My hope is that through the art of storytelling I can bring the magic of Appalachia to readers everywhere.” With Blood Creek she achieves that goal. It is a fine and magical story indeed.

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