Thursday, October 1, 2009

Book Review: Footprints in the Coal Dust

Last year at the West Virginia Book Festival I picked up this book because it was on the sale table. I thought my husband might enjoy reading it since it was about life in the coal camps, and I figured I'd like it too.



Last night I was searching our bookshelves for another book on mining and pulled Footprints in the Coal Dust from the shelf. I flipped through the pages and a ghost story caught my eye. I took the book into the log room, settled down on the couch in front of the fire and began to read.

What I found was a story told in simple, direct language about life in a West Virginia coal camp in Logan county in the 1930's and 1940's. It's not a sad story, nor is it a happy one. It is factual, full of childhood tricks and games, memories of good times and bad as the author's family struggled to make a living in the hard way of the coal mines. Layoffs and strikes prevented anyone from getting ahead, and scrip was an all-too-common method of survival as families hung on until the next good payday.

Still, even with the hardships Pauline Bokkon describes, there were times of happiness. Getting a lead part in a school play, drinking Cokes at the grille in town where she could people-watch and the special gift of a doll to offset disappointment, and shine from the pages as moments of pure bliss. Bokkon's first job provided money for clothes and pride as she was able to contribute to the family's funds, and her efforts to improve their home with free wallpaper make for funny reading--and yet I admired the drive that led her to complete the task above her parents' objection and go on to earn money by wallpapering the homes of others.

Marriage took her briefly from the coalfields to Virginia, where her parents had relocated, but it was a short-lived stay. When the Bokkons returned to West Virginia, however, their life followed the same difficult path Pauline remembered from her childhood. Come what may, she was determined to leave and not raise her children in the same hardship she had known.

The Bokkons managed to leave after a few years, returning again to Virginia. Through hard work and creative thinking, they made a life for themselves, built a home, raised their family, poodles--and even a few lions. I'm not kidding--lions!

When a bad economy forced her husband out of work, Pauline started a crafts business which grew and led the Bokkons into new directions.

Although Pauline seems to have little love for West Virginia, her feelings are understandable. I love this state, as do most people who live here, and cannot imagine leaving for any reason. However, I never experienced the kind of hard life and hard times she lived through, and in her shoes I'd probably have felt the same way. The Bokkons knew the coalfields and the mining way of life; there is much more here but it was not part of their experience. They made a good life for themselves in Virginia, raised a good family and much to be proud of. Pauline is a survivor, but more than that, she's a creative, entrepreneurial woman who let nothing get in the way of what she wanted to do in her life.

For a first-hand account of life in a coal camp, this book is an excellent resource. Recipes, the ghost story I mentioned, and even a mountain vocabulary are included in a story written as Pauline recalled it. Her granddaughters asked her to write her memories down and she did; the result is Footprints in the Coal Dust. It is a captivating, funny, heart-wrenching and uplifting read.

Footprints in the Coal Dust
Bokkon, Pauline (1926- )
Charleston, WV: The Printing Press, 1997

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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