Mining novel, new sequel take readers into Illinois coal wars

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KEVIN CORLEY sells copies of his novels at the Mother Jones Dinner in Springfield, IL, on Oct. 9.
KEVIN CORLEY sells copies of his novels at the Mother Jones Dinner in Springfield, IL, on Oct. 9.

By CARL GREEN

Illinois Correspondent 

Taylorville, IL – Well, the holidays are coming, and sometimes it’s hard to find a good Christmas present.

So retired history teacher Kevin Corley has stepped up to the plate with two historical novels set in the Illinois coal mining fields, his original Sixteen Tons and his new sequel, Throw Out the Water.

Corley taught at Taylorville High School. As part of his history work, he conducted oral history interviews with many of the state’s retired miners, in association with the University of Illinois Springfield.

The interviews were used by historian Carl Oblinger in the writing of Divided Kingdom, a highly regarded history of Illinois coal miners in the Great Depression, published in 1991.

So Corley had stories to tell and great insight into the people whose experiences he relates. The original interviews can still be found online from Illinois Digital Archives at idaillinois.org.

Eventually, Corley decided to write a novel based on the experiences of mining families in his interviews, set in Christian County, an area north of the Metro-East where Taylorville is located.

THE FIRST BOOK

The first book, Sixteen Tons, was published in 2014 by Hardball Press of Brooklyn, N.Y., which describes itself as a specialist in books about working people. Their website, hardballpress.com, has dozens of interesting offerings, many in a Labor setting.

The story follows an immigrant from Italy, Antonio Vacca, as he works underground and raises his four sons to become miners like him – and loyal union members. It’s not an easy story – the miners have to fight for their right to organize, and they also face extreme danger in the mines themselves.

Corley’s book pamphlet states, “Coal mine wars – they were every bit as brutal and bloody as the American Old West. These books will take you down into the dark, dirty and dangerous coal mines with cave-ins, explosions and poisonous gases.

“And if you think it’ll be safe on the surface, you’re wrong. There’ll be gunfights, bombings and even a full-scale battle with 10,000 armed coal miners fighting for the right to unionize.”

Real events in the story include:

  • The Virden Riot (or Massacre) in 1898.
  • The Pana Massacre that same year.
  • The Westmoreland Strike of 1910.
  • The Ludlow Massacre in 1914.
  • The Spanish Flu Epidemic in 1918.
  • The Matewan Gunfight in 1920 and Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.
  • The campaigning of Mother Jones between 1910 and 1930.

Bommarito-3x3-colorTHE SEQUEL

By the time the book ends, it has taken up the stories of three other families – the Engs, Harrisons and Hilers.

So the second book, Throw Out the Water, follows those families through the events of the 1930s, known as the Illinois Mine Union War, in which the United Mine Workers clashed with the Progressive Miners of America and with Chicago gangsters hired by the coal mine bosses, between 1933 and 1937.

Former UMWA president and current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka provided a review of the first book that states, “Kevin Corley has written a book that is full of historical insights. Although it is a work of fiction, it is artfully grounded in thorough research.

“Corley’s words bring to light the dreams and aspirations of the men, women and children who lived our Labor history. They traveled across oceans and expanses of land. They dug and blasted deep into the earth. It is written so anyone today can get an understanding of the miner’s work day back then.”

Kevin Corley’s novels, Sixteen Tons and Throw Out the Water, sell for $15 each at hardballpress.com and can be found on amazon.com as well. Reviews can be seen online and at Amazon. Corley can be reached at sixteentons@yahoo.com.

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