The Women’s War by Carol Ervin is the third book I have read by this author. It is an indicator that I like the writing style. As noted on the cover, this is book four in a series, but I read it as a stand-alone novel. I read The Girl on the Mountain, book one of this series, then Dell Zero, a very different genre, and now this novel, book four of this series. I have never been a very orderly reader.
History, as it was usually presented in schools I attended, was a rather dry subject. There was a war, WWI, called the Great War. The United States eventually entered it and a lot of soldiers died. But on the home front, back in the US, there were those who worked to support the war effort logistically, such as coal miners.
Carol Ervin fleshes out dryly presented historical facts with examples of history’s effects on everyday human existence. In this novel, the reader glimpses the lives of different classes of coal miners. Never a highly paid job, always a dangerous one, the occupation demanded a support structure that included many kinds of people. And they all had their own story.
School teachers were important. Mary Rose had been one. Her situation in this novel improved a lot after her marriage to Barlow and the birth of her son Freddy. No longer a schoolteacher, she was now the wife of a mine owner. As she spent more time at home taking care of her son she became aware of an attitude toward her that she felt surprising. She had become one of “them.” Miner’s wives did not accept her; they resented her for being rich. In fact, she was not rich. When economic troubles hit all classes of the coal community, Mary Rose was a leader in creating community aid societies and her link to the community as she tried to build social bridges was a teacher.
Coal mine owners were seen as a greedy monolithic bunch with no concern for workers. Yes, there were company stores where workers could buy goods and run up a bill. But the prices were not competitive, the mine companies could charge what they wanted. And to establish credit, the workers had to pay not with cash, but with company-issued scrip. There was housing for workers, but the company was free to charge rent, or not. Companies were free to evict low performing or complaining workers. And to heat their homes, the workers had to buy the coal they had mined. It should not be surprising that a revolution was coming in the form of worker unions but not until after the war ended. Agreements to that effect had been signed between workers and the federal government.
With an end to the war, prosperity should soon follow. But that is not what happened. With the lapse of a non-strike agreement combined with a resentment by workers of unfair treatment and unequal treatment by different mine companies, the labor revolution was on. The United Mine Workers (UMW) began their slow ascent to a position of wage dominance in the mining industry. That should not have mattered to the Winkler Mine. Owners, Barlow, Will, and Randolph believed that workers treated fairly were more productive. For this, they were rewarded with scorn by the Mine Owner’s Association. The Winkler Mine was too humane. It was setting a bad example that encouraged worker dissent.
The reader is treated to business meetings where the plight of the Winkler Mine is thrashed out to find a solution. With the war over, there is no need for their product in the near term. Workers will have to be laid off or fired until demand for coal rises. Business owners are not the only ones cognizant of this; workers know they have to reach new agreements to survive under a new economic model.
The story is played out in the overall context of the importance of family unity and solidarity in the face of many external threats, such as problems in the coal industry, WWI, and a worldwide epidemic of the Spanish Flu (think ebola, HIV, and Zika) as well as internal threats resultant from human frailty. There is the alcoholism of Price. There is the near nymphomania of Blanche, a mother of three who frequently forgets or misplaces her children. There is a preacher who seems to like Wanda, stepdaughter of Mary Rose and wife of mine partner Will (a medical doctor). Maybe the reader will accept that there is nothing going on between the preacher and Wanda but all appearances suggest otherwise. There are Russell and Charlie, two guys who live together, shunned others, and each seems to have something not quite right mentally. They weren’t dangerous, usually, although many were wary of providing an unintentional trigger to violent behavior. And there is no hint that they were gay. I was very happy that they were not offered up as a sacrifice to the PC police that seems to demand at least one gay character in every novel. Alternate lifestyles, fine. Gratuitous stuff to satisfy PC, nope.
It should not surprise the reader to find it’s the human frailty stuff and how we deal with it that is interesting. Our teacher in this novel is Mary Rose. She interacts with all characters and tries to tone down the rhetoric when tensions rise. While totally supporting her husband as he struggles to save a business, she also survives the Spanish flu, an arson attack on her newly built home, a high maintenance child, and high maintenance friends.
As a reader, I was fascinated to see the way Carol Ervin developed all these character arcs (many, many) so they could act out an entertaining tale. Check out the teaser at the end that jumps ahead one hundred years. Winkler, at least as a town, lives on.