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Coal Hollow: Photographs and Oral Histories.

COAL HOLLOW: PHOTOGRAPHS AND ORAL HISTORIES. By Ken Light and Melanie Light. With Forewords by Orville Schell and Robert S. Reich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 139 pp. Hardbound, $34.95.

Coal Hollow's appearance after the Sago Mine Disaster in which twelve West Virginia coal miners died in January 2006 is timely. This book is an example of "engaged documentary realism" (vii), the result of an exploration by its authors into contemporary life and conditions in southern West Virginia. The major theme of the book is the ongoing human and environmental damage that the coal industry inflicted, and continues to inflict, on the people the industry left behind. Through a dual combination of photographs and oral histories, the authors aimed to inform the public and make a difference. Coal Hollow itself is a fictitious place, a composite of many coal communities that exist in eight counties in southern West Virginia.

Ken Light's eighty-one striking and evocative photographs, taken from 2000 to 2002, provide a snapshot of the everyday life of some of the region's most vulnerable people, including elderly men, single mothers, and children. The poverty is undeniable. In her field notes, Melanie Light remarked that life in West Virginia had always seemed hard and that the very direness of the photographic images, which might easily have come from another impoverished country, initially made it difficult for her to get her heart and head involved in the project. But she did get involved and discovered, to her surprise, that the miners and other laboring people who appeared in regional documentary photographs taken in the 1940s and 1950s looked far more alive and proud than those whom her husband had recently photographed. She began to do oral histories, and excerpts from eleven of her thirty oral histories complement the images by providing a basic overview of contemporary problems, the survival techniques of a cross-section of people, and thoughts about the future of the Appalachian region.

The interviews begin with a historical commentary by Neale Clark, a Fayette Tribune journalist, and end with novelist Denise Giardina's pessimistic comments about the powerlessness of those who live there. In between, oral histories cover the life stories of a snake handler, a Christian missionary, a mountain woman, a retired miner, a mayor, a mine owner, a former justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and others. Disparate individuals alternately blame the coal industry, the union, or the government for the state's depressed economic conditions that some compared to those existing in the Third World.

The biggest flaw in the book is that the methodology used in collecting and editing the oral histories is unclear and undeveloped. Why the authors chose eleven of the thirty people they interviewed for the book is not clear. No African Americans and only one person from a southern and eastern European ethnic background appear in the work, although both groups once had sizable populations in the region. Also, there is no way to know what the role of the interviewer was or what questions were asked or how the editing was done. That the full names of some of those interviewed, the more successful ones, were given, while only the first names of the more vulnerable subjects who were interviewed or photographed are given, seems condescending and not a mere question of privacy. Finally, the authors fail to mention where the complete oral histories are located or if they have been deposited in an archive or institution for the public to peruse.

Nonetheless, the aim of Coal Hollow was to bear witness to one of the nation's most devastated and forgotten regions today. The beautiful photographs and readable interviews certainly accomplish that goal. It is a place to start, but for a deeper understanding of the history of the region and of white Appalachian or mountain culture, readers will have to consult other literature.

Mildred Allen Beik

Independent Historian

Atlanta, GA
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Author:Beik, Mildred Allen
Publication:The Oral History Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:654
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