February Read of the Month: “Waters Run Wild,” by Andrea Fekete

Andrea Fekete (photo by Mike Adkins)

Reviewed by Phyllis Wilson Moore

Andrea Fekete’s first novel, Waters Run Wild (Guest Room Press, 2018) is a brutal story of the struggle for equity in the West Virginia coal fields in the industry’s early days.

Before federal laws and unions intervened, workers were exploited in every imaginable way. Unions were prohibited, wages were low. In the company-owned towns, retail and grocery stores were company-owned and operated—their merchandise, overpriced. Camps were in rural locations with no public transportation. Miners’ jobs required specific tools that were not provided. Miners believed they were cheated out of their rightful earnings because, they thought, they had not been credited with the correct number of tons dug and loaded. Houses were small, shabby, and poorly insulated.

How did coal companies of the era find workers? They had a naive supply in two distinct groups: unsuspecting Southern blacks looking for a way out of the South and immigrants recruited at the major ports of entry into the United States. Non-English speaking immigrants often arrived in West Virginia in debt for their transportation to the coal camp. They had no way of knowing they were entering a feudal system.

To ensure a stable workforce, the companies created a sticky web: jobs in isolated mountainous places, payment in company script instead of currency, families required to purchase only at the pricey company store, no available transportation, charges for tools and the dynamite required to do the job. There were no streets paved with gold. In fact, there were no paved streets.

In the camps, races, religions, and faces varied but blacks and whites had separate neighborhoods; ethnic groups were clumped together. The company owned the church, paid the preacher and the teacher and supplied the doctor. It was their store, their post office, their school. Their rules. Everything was under their control. Everything.

Waters Run Wild digs into this harshness and reveals how it translates into the behavior of people caught in its web. It came as no surprise when an exhausted miner arrived home angry and ready to snort, yell, cuss, and slam things.

The protagonist, high-school-aged Jennie, lives with her Mama, Daddy, brothers Ezra and Isaac, and sisters Katie and little Anna. This ordinary family is considered “white trash” by some, but ranks slightly higher than the camp’s immigrants and blacks. Each group avoids the other, except for the children, who often mix freely.

Coal dust is everywhere: on the trees, on the houses, in the lungs. Fear of disaster is ever-present and weighs heavily on the minds of this family, especially young Isaac. He wants to leave and find a non-mining job, but his family insists that he stay and work in the mines. The more tons dug, the more income the family has.

Fekete takes risks in this novel by writing some chapters in the voices of the characters and others in the voices of flood water, snow, coal dust, and leaves. By doing so, she takes the reader inside the mines’ shafts and out into the countryside. She effectively transmits what some of the characters are thinking and what is occurring around them.

The image of a tiny Anna, hiding under a porch as rape and carnage occur above her, will stay with readers.

The details, and the believable characters in this work, recall the logging and mining novels of Hubert Skidmore, one of West Virginia’s noted authors. Through the eyes of a family, Fekete provides an up-close look at a painful era in West Virginia’s history—and she does it well.

First published by Sweetgum Press in 2010, the 2018 edition is available from Guest Room Press of Charleston, West Virginia. This edition contains a new prologue, epilogue, revisions, and a new cover—a striking photograph of the author as the novel’s protagonist, Jennie.

Fekete is a coal miner’s daughter and the granddaughter to Mexican and Hungarian immigrants raised in the coalfields of West Virginia. She is the author of one poetry chapbook and one novel. In October 2018, her novel-in-progress Native Trees was a finalist in Still’s fiction contest. Her fiction and poetry appear in journals such as Chiron Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Kentucky Review, Adirondack Review, ABZ, and in several anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia (West Virginia University Press, 2017).

She holds a Master of Arts in English from Marshall University and a Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She and author Lara Lillibridge are co-editors of an anthology of women’s writing, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power & Invisibility forthcoming from Cynren Press in April, 2019. A former adjunct professor of English at Ohio University and Marshall University, Fekete lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

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