'Theological writer' Giardina holds coal industry's feet to the fire

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 11, 2014 


    First Thursday Book Group

    What: The group, which is open to the public, will hear from Denise Giardina and discuss her novel Storming Heaven. A book signing and reception will follow.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13

    Where: Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, 533 E. Main St.


    From 'Storming Heaven' by Denise Giardina

    A very young man spends his first day working the West Virginia mines.

    "Daddy, I cant do this."

    "Other younguns do it. You aint nothing special. You'll git used to it."

    I knew there were other children in the mine. Boys at my school were always dropping out to go to work. I would lose sight of them for weeks, then they would reappear on a Sunday afternoon, some with chaws of tobacco bulging in their cheeks, looking hard and wise like little old men. I felt ashamed when I thought of them. Daddy was right. I was due no special privileges.

    I knew the boy on the first trap door we came to. He was an Italian who went to first grade with me. His job was to pump the trap door all day long, keep the air moving. He had to open the door for the mule trains too, and keep out of the way so he wouldn't be run down. ... We walked almost two miles in. It was low coal so that Daddy and his buddy must always crawl, but I was short for my age and could walk if I bent over. I was called on to fetch and carry the tools, the auger, rod and black powder. Daddy stretched out on his belly and showed me how they would work.

When Denise Giardina comes to Lexington to read her novel Storming Heaven at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church's First Thursday Book Group on Feb. 13, she'll be bringing three empty water jugs with her.

That because Giardina, who lives in Charleston, W.Va., is still suspicious of the damage caused to her area's water supply. On Jan. 9, a coal-cleaning chemical was spilled at Freedom Industries in Charleston, leading to a water-use ban for 300,000 people for as many as 10 days.

Giardina can be seen in a video posted to her Facebook page brandishing her most recent water bill and saying several pointed things about West Virginia American Water billing its customers for the period in which the water was unusable.

"West Virginia Water, you are a big company, and I think you can afford to forgive people's bills this month, since you pumped poison water into our systems and into our houses," she says in the video.

Giardina tells the company she will be sending them nothing, and she lights the bill on fire, dousing the ashes with what she sees as suspect tap water. Giardina also calls on the utility to inspect the possibly damaged pipes and water heaters of its customers.

For Giardina, 62, the Charleston debacle is only the latest assault by the coal industry on living standards and economic vitality in Appalachia, which she has chronicled in novels including Storming Heaven (1988) and The Unquiet Earth (1994).

"People in Charleston have been getting a taste of what people in the coal fields have been dealing with for years," Giardina said by phone from her West Virginia home. "People in the coalfields haven't been able to drink their water for a long time."

Although Giardina is best known for her novels about coalfield injustice, she also wrote a novel about German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Hitler activist who died by hanging at a German concentration camp.

Her first book, Good King Harry, was a novel about King Henry V. Fallam's Secret links West Virginia with England in a time-travel story. Emily's Ghost: A Novel of the Bronte Sisters, centers on the sibling who wrote Wuthering Heights.

Giardina also is a deacon of the Episcopal Church and said the visit to Good Shepherd is part of her church-based mission.

Giardina has strong Kentucky ties. Her mother is from Pike County, and she has lived in Kentucky several times.

While Giardina was writing Storming Heaven, she lived in the 400-person community of David, in Floyd County. When the group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth was formed, she became its secretary-treasurer. Giardina moved from Kentucky after three years, in 1988, to Durham, N.C., where she worked in a bookstore, although she returned to live in Whitesburg as a writer-in-residence during the early 1990s.

She is retired from West Virginia State University, where she taught in the English department. She ran for governor of West Virginia in the 2000 general election, receiving more than 10,000 votes, on a platform of support for labor issues, environmental protection and fair taxation of coal and absentee-owned land.

The scope of Giardina's writing — which spans continents and subject matter — leads Giardina to describe herself as "a theological writer."

"That's what I'm interested in exploring, whether it's morality, right or wrong, or redemption, or life after death — the theological issues we all grapple with," Giardina said.

Although Storming Heaven is her most successful novel, Giardina said it's difficult to pick a favorite.

"It's like your favorite kid," she said. "They all have things I really like, and they're all different."

Giardina is now researching her next book, which will center on the political chaos of the early 1930s in the United States, when retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler implicated a handful of national figures in the "Business Plot," an alleged political conspiracy in 1933 to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She also plans to produce what she terms a "kind-of a memoir."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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