Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Review: We Be Here When the Morning Comes

Book Title: We Be Here When the Morninng Comes
Author: Bryan Woolley
Date: 1975
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
ISBN: 0-8131-1337-7
Length: 104 pages text plus photo insert
Illustrations: black-and-white photos by Ford Reid
Quote: “We Be Here When the Morning Comes is not a sociological study of ‘the Appalachian coal miner today’...It is intended to be simply a portrait, in words and pictures, of a community and its people art a particular instant...based al­most entirely on our own observations of persons arnd events and many hours of tape-recorded interviews.”
In the 1930s, Harlan County coal miners’ attempts to unionize led to a small-scale civil war. In the 1970s, the mines were still the source of “the nation’s life blood—electric power,” and the miners were on strike, demanding a few improvements that they hoped would make their job less dangerous. Reporter Woolley and photographer Reid had documented earlier phases of the story for the Louisville papers before they decided to rent rooms in Harlan and produce this short book.
“It is also a book about Appalachia,” a blurb writer insists on the dust jacket, as if disputing Woolley’s very words. In Virginia, “Appalachia” is the name of a specific town....and this book is about Harlan, which is a place in its own right, and entitled to its own name.
It is, specifically, about an incident in which a mine foreman, probably drunk, shot and killed a striking miner, and how the community reacted. The striker may have participated in some sort of demonstration that provoked the foreman, or may not; different stories were told. They were neighbors, had been friends, and may have been relatives. The long strike had been getting on everybody’s nerves. Woolley’s informants describe an episode in which strikers’ wives, thinking a court order not to harass the strike breakers was aimed at their husbands but not at them, attacked the “scabs” with “switches”—“Did you ever see a switch big around as your arm?” People were afraid the violence would get out of hand. At first they worried that Woolley might provoke violence. In the end his reportorial presence may have put a damper on the violence, although Woolley reports that the foreman was pronounced innocent of “intent to kill.” Based on Woolley’s reporting, this verdict rather obviously reflected the fact that U.S. juries are not allowed to pronounce a case “not proved,” no matter how many conflicting, unverifiable stories they’ve heard.
Slanted? Pro-union? Absolutely. “Impressively honest,” as Robert Coles pronounced this book? Probably. Woolley seems to be reporting what people told him; under the circumstances it’s natural, even predictable, that all his informants seem to be on the strikers’ side—knowing which side his sympathies were on, people on the other side wouldn’t have talked to Woolley. Although Woolley admits that there was no way for outsiders to tell the scabs from the strikers, that they still worked in the same mines and belonged to the same families and even continued to worship in the same churches, they were not on speaking terms at this point. The man in whose house Woolley was staying solemnly quoted Jack London, to Woolley, as having written, “Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared with a scab,” and refused to let Woolley buy a snack at a store: “Not that store, buddy. That’s a scab store. You wouldn’t want to do any business with him.” So Woolley wouldn’t have met any equally impressive, equally forthright people who might have thought the strike was unnecessary or counterproductive. Instead he got, and he shares with us, a witty and imaginative analysis of what went wrong with certain miners to cause their “scabism.” Honest, so far as it goes, but one-sided.
If due allowances are made for this obvious built-in bias, We Be Here When the Morning Comes is a valuable, and very readable, bit of Kentucky history.

I was surprised to learn, online, that this book has become a bit of a collector's item. Bryan Woolley is still alive and writing in Texas. (Google searches for him will be disappointing if you don't specify a book title, like We Be Here When the Morning Comes or Home Is Where the Cat Is, since another Bryan Woolley, a chef in Utah, is getting a lot of attention.) This early book is out of print, and the best I'll be able to do as a Fair Trade Book will be $10 for the book and $5 for shipping. As always, if multiple items are shipped in the same package you pay only one shipping fee. You can get the book a little cheaper (not much) directly from Amazon, but if you buy it as a Fair Trade Book Woolley, or a charity of his choice, gets $1.50.