When I first picked up Under a Cloudless Sky, I thought it was about the 1920 miners’ massacre known as the Battle of Matewan, a shootout between local coal miners and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency in West Virginia. Ten men died as a result of this fight for miner’s rights. I was intrigued to learn about this from a new angle, in a fictionalized tale.
But I was wrong. It had nothing to do with the 1920 disaster. But I was not disappointed.
The setting of Under a Cloudless Sky hops between 1933 and 2004. Though the massacre portrayed is fictional, the story effectively captures the plight of coal miners, the conditions of mining camps, and the disparity between the lives of miners and the men who employed them.
Part of this tale takes place in the fictional town of Beulah Mountain, a coal mining camp. The friendship of two girls thrives despite their father’s occupations: a miner and an owner.
The miners’ poverty and desperate plight calls to mind Beulah Mountain (Isaiah 62:4) in The Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian and Hopeful find refreshment in the “sweet and pleasant” air. During this brief respite, birds sing, flowers bloom, and the sun shines night and day. Far from Doubting Castle, the pilgrims are safe from the Giant of Despair and other threats that snagged them along the way.
Ruby and Bean find their own intermittent respite. Like Christian and similar pilgrims plagued by unending earthly miseries, they can only look forward. Beulah is one step closer to the Promised Land. And the girls find a piece of that joy by singing the hymn “Dwelling in Beulah Land” (C. Austin Miles).
Listen to the song here—you have two options:
- Dwelling in Beulah Land—a rousing version on Gaither Music TV, accompanied by guitar, harmonica, and some jazzy piano
- Dwelling in Beulah Land—a joyful congregational hymn during a church service, with piano, more along the lines of what Ruby and Bean experienced
Note the inspiration for the book’s title in the refrain:
I’m living on the mountain, underneath a cloudless sky;
I’m drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry;
O yes! I’m feasting on the manna from a bountiful supply,
For I am dwelling in Beulah Land.
But it’s only a minute’s peace. Then back to reality.
Back Cover Blurb
A charming and engrossing novel for fans of Southern fiction and the recent hit memoir Hillbilly Elegy about a lush and storied coal-mining town—and the good people who live there—in danger of being destroyed for the sake of profit. Will the truth about the town’s past be its final undoing or its saving grace?
1933. In the mining town of Beulah Mountain, West Virginia, two young girls form an unbreakable bond against the lush Appalachian landscape, coal dust and old hymns filling their lungs and hearts. Despite the polarizing forces of their fathers—one a mine owner, one a disgruntled miner —Ruby and Bean thrive under the tender care of Bean’s mama, blissfully unaware of the rising conflict in town and the coming tragedy that will tear them apart forever.
2004. Hollis Beasley is taking his last stand. Neighbors up and down the hollow have sold their land to Coleman Coal and Energy, but Hollis is determined to hold on to his family legacy on Beulah Mountain. Standing in his way is Buddy Coleman, an upstart mining executive who hopes to revitalize the dying town by increasing coal production and opening the Company Store Museum. He’ll pay homage to the past—even the massacre of 1933—while positioning the company for growth at all costs.
What surprises them all is how their stories will intersect with a feisty octogenarian living hundreds of miles away. When Ruby Handley Freeman’s grown children threaten her independence, she takes a stand of her own and disappears, propelling her on a journey to face a decades-old secret that will change everything for her and those she meets.
As the story opened, it immediately swept me away to West Virginia 1933, with Ruby Handley and Beatrice Dingess–better known as Bean–running over the grass to church. Ruby is a coal heiress who lives in Beulah Mountain for a short time with her father, a co-owner of the mining camp. Bean and her parents live in a hovel.
Ruby wears her nice Sunday dress purchased from a catalog. Her fingernails are neatly trimmed. Bean’s shoe’s are “held together with sea-grass string and a prayer,” her fingernails dirty from handling coal, digging worms, and plucking chickens.
The issues between the haves and the have-nots unfolds through conflicts between Ruby’s father, Mr. Handley, and Bean’s father, Judson Dingess, a man given to drink and threats. But compassionate Mr. Handley isn’t really the enemy. In advocating, he constantly butts heads with ruthless co-owner Mr. Coleman, who remains impervious.
Fast forward to 2004. Ruby Handley Freeman is 84 in Biding, Kentucky. She’s rich but doesn’t live like it. She kept only one link to her past–a pair of old shoes from the mining camp–telltale evidence and far from a pleasant memory. She still drives, proud to be independent and known for her culinary contributions of carrot cakes, German chocolate cakes, and brownies to the community.
But she’s plagued by reporter Charlotte Beasley who keeps showing up, wanting to know if Ruby got the invitation to the grand opening of the Company Store Museum in Beulah Mountain–and wanting to ask questions about the massacre and Esau scrip. The new Company Store Museum will showcase the history of the area. Charlotte is writing about the store and life there in the 1930s.
But that’s none of Ruby’s concern. At least not yet. She left that piece of her far behind in childhood. So she thinks.
When Ruby’s son Jerry and daughter Frances (all the way from Nashville) show up concerned about her driving, hard-headed Ruby doesn’t take well to their recommendations. Their decisions elicit a response they don’t expect–and could cost them all dearly.
In just this segment alone, my heart was torn between Ruby’s desire for continued independence and the adult children’s concern for her safety, and the safety of the community.
On top of that, Frances struggles with anxiety. Her mind reels out potential scenarios of disaster faster than thunder follows lightening. After fully exploring all possible what ifs, she could earn a gold medal for leaving no stone unturned. In fact, for turning over stones faster than the average person.
Incidentally, Ruby regularly listens to and supports Reverend Franklin Brown’s radio broadcast, and sometimes calls in. Another nod to the valuable role of radio.
Meanwhile, back in Beulah Mountain, Charlotte’s Grandpa Hollis Beasley is holding out. He won’t sell his property to the coal company even when Buddy Coleman (heir of Mr. Coleman in 1933) offers him good money. Even though Hollis’s wife Juniper is ill and wants him to sell.
It’s no simple matter. Hollis is torn between two vows–one to his dead parents to keep their land, another to his wife and their wedding vows, all complicating his stand in the trenches against Coleman.
Only Ruby remains the common thread between the 1933 massacre and the threat of the encroaching coal company in 2004. She knows something nobody else does. And it matters. Surprises lurked where she and Bean played at Ruby’s apartment above the Company Store, riding up and down the dumbwaiter.
This story spawned various musings: is it possible to really know your parents? Are there hidden things you’d rather not know? How would life and relationships have been different if Ruby’s secret was revealed earlier? What do we do with the silence of God even if we acknowledge His sovereignty? It makes for good book group discussion.
This split-time novel moves seamlessly back and forth between two decades as the drama rises, culminating in surprising revelations–one which I predicted and one that blew my mind–yet in retrospect made perfect sense.
Join me for some Q & A with author Chris Fabry.
Your Author Note says that part of the inspiration for this story is a photo of your father and his brother in a coal camp. What do you know about your father’s experiences there?
Chris: I just know it was a hard start in life. His mother died when he was about 10, I think. And then his little brother died shortly after that. His father moved from the coalfields because of the nature of the work and the violence going on in the 1920s. I’ve watched the movie Matewan a few times and have wondered if my grandfather’s experience was like that.
Did any of your inspiration for this story come from the 1920 West Virginia massacre? Was the 1933 event you wrote about completely fictional?
Chris: It was fictional, but, yes, that and a few other incidents fed into my desire for a villain and some good guys. It wasn’t hard to find villains in that time period.
What area of West Virginia did you grow up in? What are some of your primary memories of growing up there?
Chris: I was born in Culloden, halfway between Huntington and Charleston, the capital. I remember trees in the fall turning the brightest colors you can imagine. Fishing in the ponds on the farm and hiking on the hill and making forts and spinning stories in my head. I was a big Cincinnati Reds baseball fan in the 1970s and lived and breathed with every radio broadcast. Theater of the mind.
I looked online and found only a town called Beulah and a Beulah Hill in West Virginia. Is there a Beulah Mountain or is it fictional?
Chris: I love the word “Beulah,” just for how it looks. The old hymn the book is based on has the words “Beulah Land” in it, so I thought I would name it Beulah Mountain. The first scene there has the two girls running for the church because they’re going to sing that song. But there is no Beulah Mountain per se—it’s like Mack Strum, it’s here in my heart.
Is the Whipple Company Store the one that sparked your story? Have you been there?
Chris: I saw that story online and it gave me several ideas of how to work the story onto the page. And the way the owners of the mine took advantage of the women—that story has been talked about and written about as well. What the people went through was horrific, if those stories are true.
Your Author Note says that your mother never wanted to return to her hometown, because of difficult times there. The protagonist Ruby, however, does go back. You mentioned in a Facebook post that your mother asked if she was Ruby. Is she? If so, in what way? If not, how did you create her character?
Chris: Yes, my mother is the Ruby prototype. She is now 94 and bakes cakes for friends and family and is still living in the house my father built. We’ve tried to get her to move, but so far she’s hanging onto her independence. She grew up on Campbell’s Creek near a mine and gas well where her father worked. It was hardscrabble and poverty-stricken and I think that’s one of the reasons she’s made it to 94.
I’ve always enjoyed asking my parents, grandparents, and anyone from older generations about their life experiences. I’ve found that most love sharing their stories, but are sometimes reticent to share difficult events. In the book, Frances becomes interested in learning more about her mother’s early life. How much have you probed into your own parents’ lives? Are they willing to share difficult stories? Also, have your own kids started asking you those kinds of questions?
Chris: My kids ask way too many questions! I make up stories about being a cheerleader in college, which isn’t even close to the truth. I wish I had asked my father more about his life—he passed away in 2011. Every weekend I call my mother and learn some new nugget of truth that comes from her memory.
Chris–on Mentoring Writers
Speaking of coal mining, on your Hey You Can Write website, you say that you will help writers to mine the words from their lives. Is there one main way you do that? What is your best writing advice to aspiring novelists?
Chris: The best advice for writers is to write instead of talking about it. I believe there are treasures inside that can come onto the page but you have to spend the time to do that. I spent several years in the 808 section of our local library reading everything I could find about how to publish and how to craft a story. So I would say, don’t start with a novel. Start with shorter things. And read as much as you possibly can to see how others writers do what they do.
You’ve had so much writing success. Before you were published, what obstacles and rejections did you face that help you relate to struggling writers?
Chris: Well, success is a tricky thing. You never seem to be able to grab it and hang onto it because you always want more. The biggest obstacle for me was believing I had something to say. I kept hearing voices from my childhood saying, “Who do you think you are? What do you have to say that anyone would listen to?” It took a long time to believe I did have something to say, and then the rejections from different publishers were the second stage of hurdles. But if you’re a writer, you don’t let anybody keep you from writing and trying and trying again.
On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy Under a Cloudless Sky, you might enjoy my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, with a southern Appalachian setting. Though set in 1968 in western North Carolina rather than West Virginia, so-called progress jeopardizes a tight-knit community and its values. Instead of coal mining machinery ravishing the land, a theme park threatens to overtake the town. The problem escalates as a secret unfolds–a secret held by one of the town’s most influential men. Are secrets worth the price they cost to keep? Learn more on my website here. Watch the book trailer here.
Chris Fabry is an award-winning author and radio personality who hosts the daily program Chris Fabry Live on Moody Radio. He is also heard on Love Worth Finding, Building Relationships with Dr. Gary Chapman, and other radio programs. A 1982 graduate of the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism at Marshall University and a native of West Virginia, Chris and his wife, Andrea, now live in Arizona and are the parents of nine children. Chris’s novels have won five Christy Awards, an ECPA Christian Book Award, and two Christianity Today Book Awards of Merit. His 80+ books range from nonfiction and film novelizations to novels for children and young adults. Go to his website to learn more.
Check out Chris’s website for aspiring writers.
Have you read Under a Cloudless Sky? What are some stories you’ve learned about your parents that have made a difference in your life or made you see them in a different way?