It is 1908 in Mingo County, West Virginia. Two brothers, Durwood and Bascom Matney, bury their mother; one of the mourners in attendance is a cousin from Richmond who will take the younger boy, Durwood, to live in her Monument Avenue home.
Bascom, five years older, already is working in the coal mines with the boys’ alcoholic father.
Their story, told over the next 13 years against the background of the West Virginia Mine Wars, is the subject of Mingo, the first novel by Richmond lawyer Jeff Barnes.
And what a story it is.
Mingo is a page-turner in the finest sense of the word. Barnes moves his story at a fast pace, but with enough telling details to frame each chapter and scene.
The specifics make those vignettes evocative, showing the inside of a company-owned store, or the Confederate flags hanging in front of grand Richmond homes, or the veneration, in 1911, for Robert E. Lee or the gritty camps where miners stave off the cold and the security agents hired by the mines.
The storytelling, balancing scenes from West Virginia with those from Richmond, is almost cinematic in its approach. While Barnes gives us the word pictures to provide the mental image of an encounter, his dialogue carries the day. Barnes has a fine ear, and characters reveal in their speech and their approach to the other characters who they are and how they think.
Bascom leaves the mines and follows his brother briefly to Richmond; he heads back to Mingo when word of the awful conditions faced by striking miners filters to him (Another telling detail: Railroad men reliant on coal shipments got to the local newspaper editors and convinced them they didn’t need to run stories about the strikes. I have to admit that one hurt).
Barnes is unsparing in describing the racial attitudes of Richmond around 1910: The Black cook in the cousin’s house in Richmond makes it clear she should not be called “ma’am,” because she doesn’t want any trouble.
As someone who spent time underground, Bascom sympathizes with the miners who are just trying to scratch out a life and feed their families. He ultimately joins a union and helps to organize the resistance.
Durwood, in the meantime, has grown up well and well-provided-for, golfing with the mayor of Richmond and attending law school. Once World War I breaks out, he enlists in the army and fights in Russia. One of his buddies, a man who saved his life in the trenches, returned home to West Virginia, only to be killed in union violence while working for a security agency.
Durwood heads to his native state determined to avenge the death. Now on opposite sides of the mine wars, the brothers must reach a resolution, one which unfolds against the backdrop of actual events.
Barnes, a native of Tazewell County (in the heart of Virginia’s coal country), knows his region and the people over the state border, and it’s clear he has done his research.
Full of detail and well-drawn characters, Mingo is a highly satisfying read wrapped in a sneaky-good history lesson. We have a lot to look forward to when Barnes sits down at the keyboard again.
Mingo will be published on Nov. 26. The book can be preordered through Book People Richmond.