What would you say is the worst tragedy in United States history?
Looking over my past reviews, I noted that several revolve around U.S. disasters:
- All Manner of Things — by Susie Finkbeiner — the Vietnam War
- Under a Cloudless Sky—by Chris Fabry — the poor treatment of coal miners
- The Pink Bonnet — by Liz Tolsma — the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and Georgia’s Tann’s abductions of thousands of children (1920s – 1940s)
- The Red Ribbon by Pepper Basham — the 1912 Hillsville Courthouse Massacre of Carroll County, Virginia
- Under the Tulip Tree — by Michelle Shocklee — a story based on the Federal Writers Project slave narratives (1930s)
- If It Rains — by Jennifer L Wright — the Dust Bowl
At least two of these might be unknown to the average person. Today’s book features another possibly unfamiliar one: the 1930s Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster in West Virginia.
Industrial tragedies were common in coal mines and on railroads. But the practically unknown Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy was one of this country’s worst. Even more sad, this was completely preventable.
The Hawks Nest Tunnel was constructed in the 1930s near Gauley Bridge, WV. Miners died from silicosis—white silica dust embedded in the lungs. Most victims were African Americans.
They were digging a three-mile tunnel to channel water to a hydropower plant. But the rock they drilled through turned out to be silica.
Around 5000 men worked on this project, three-fifths of them inside the actual tunnel. Workers got sick from breathing silica dust for months on the job. As dust filled the lungs, with no cure, breathing got worse, leading to death.
People who gravitated to Hawks Nest were optimistic about finding a job during the Great Depression. But Gauley Bridge instead became known as “the town of the living dead” with its sick workers. A projected four-year project dwindled to eighteen months.
Experts debate the number of deaths, ranging from 400 to 2000. Even worse were the Jim Crow laws in effect, where black workers comprised two-thirds of the work force and got the worst work and conditions, along with lower wages.
Employers needed a spot to bury the dead. They found a nearby field in Summersville. Bodies were loaded into wagons like cargo and buried in unmarked graves. At least now there’s a memorial plaque to honor the victims.
Eventually, the U.S. Congress and courts got involved with over 300 lawsuits as 500 lawsuits were filed against Union Carbide and a contractor.
Since this tragedy, novelists, folk singers, poets, and artists have memorialized the forgotten victims in various ways. One of those novelists is author Sarah Loudin Thomas, a West Virginia native, with her story The Finder of Forgotten Things.
Read more about Hawks Tunnel here:
- National Park and Preserve, WV—The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster: Summersville, WV
- National Public Radio—Before Black Lung, the Hawks Next Tunnel Disaster Killed Hundreds
Back Cover Blurb
It’s one thing to say you can find what people need–it’s another to actually do it.
It’s 1932 and Sullivan Harris is on the run. An occasionally successful dowser, he promised the people of Kline, West Virginia, that he would find them water. But when wells turned up dry, he disappeared with their cash just a step or two ahead of Jeremiah Weber, who was elected to run him down.
Postmistress Gainey Floyd is suspicious of Sulley’s abilities when he appears in her town but reconsiders after new wells fill with sweet water. Rather, it’s Sulley who grows uneasy when his success makes folks wonder if he can find more than water–like forgotten items or missing people. He lights out to escape such expectations and runs smack into something worse.
Hundreds of men have found jobs digging the Hawks Nest Tunnel–but what they thought was a blessing is killing them. And no one seems to care. Here, Sulley finds something new–a desire to help. With it, he becomes an unexpected catalyst, bringing Jeremiah and Gainey together to find what even he has forgotten: hope.
Just to be clear, despite fallout from the Hawks Tunnel disaster, this novel is not just gloom and doom. In fact, as my first introduction to Sarah Loudin Thomas, it made me a fan.
She carefully constructs her fictional story around the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. Character arcs engage me more than tons of action, but this story has just enough of both to keep my interest piqued as the three protagonists follow their respective quests.
Three perspectives share center stage: a middle-aged single teacher Jeremiah Weber from Kline, WV; a middle-aged single postmistress Gainey Floyd living in Mount Lookout, WV; and a younger man Sullivan Harris—known as Sully—a loner who goes from town to town.
Kind Gainey eventually wants to help the hurting who are ill from working at the tunnel. Sully seeks ways to hoodwink people for money as a supposed dowser—that is, a finder of water. And Jeremiah seeks Sully after Sully left his town high and dry. Literally. Empty pockets and no water.
It’s 1932, and the Great Depression is in full force. Stamps were only two or three cents, but every penny matters. So the townsfolk of Kline send Jeremiah to find Sully and get their money back.
But Sully’s way ahead of him. It’s been said he can “charm a snake out of its skin” and “charm a bird off its nest.” He’s already on to the next town. His youth and handsome face work in his favor, seeming to compensate for his deceit.
So good luck, Jeremiah.
Sully ends up in the general store where Gainey is postmistress—and old enough to be his mother. Nothing gets past her. She suspects he’s a hobo, sniffing for a handout.
Besides water, Sully has a knack for finding trinkets and random objects. Even though, ironically, the water he promised to find in Kline never materialized.
Inadvertently charmed by young Sully, Gainey hatches a scheme to have him find a well on the Fridley farm. She’ll pay him a token amount, then put him in touch with a family who can pay him well.
Sully trots off with eleven-year-old Arbutus to meet her parents Reggie and Verna Fridley.
And the show begins. As Sully says, the most important part of dowsing is “putting on a good show about it.” Which includes the Y-shaped branch he uses as a dowsing rod. As he traipses across the property, he makes the rod twitch as if it’s sensing water.
The Fridleys aren’t used to having white company, but throughout the search for water, Sully makes himself at home. He stays for dinner and overnight on the porch.
Sully is concerned that Gainey sees past his veneer. Will he find water or not? But bigger problems loom. Reggie and Verna’s son went off to work months ago at the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. Jeremiah is committed to go as far as Gauley Bridge to find Sully and bring him to justice, and he’s getting closer. Gainey—who’s hiding a shameful secret—has mixed feelings about Sully’s intentions and dependability.
A neighboring farm family yearns for their estranged son, gone for years. Sully grows more agitated and sorrowful about never having known his own mother. More and more young men are sick and dying from working at the Hawks Nest Tunnel. Many are buried in a random field with no grave markers.
Maybe it’s time for Sully to start looking for things other than water or trinkets.
A few incidents in the second half of the book seemed far-fetched, and, unfortunately, one was told in retrospect rather than real time. But this novel is rich as Jeremiah, Gainey, and Sully are at odds with each other and find obstacles at every bend in the road—along with unexpected opportunities. Nobody is left unchanged, least of all Sully.
As the story develops, and especially near the end, I love how the title burgeons with deeper meaning.
Join me for some Q & A with Sarah Loudin Thomas.
Questions regarding The Finder of Forgotten Things:
What inspired you to write a story that includes the 1932 Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster? How did you initially hear about it?
Sarah: I’m a WV girl currently living in NC, so I drive past the turnoff to Hawks Nest each time I go home. It’s near the New River Gorge Bridge—a REALLY high, REALLY long bridge that kind of freaks me out. I discovered that I could avoid driving over the bridge by taking the long way through the gorge. It’s also a really beautiful detour and I enjoyed stopping at the Hawks Nest overlook—where I read those white historic marker signs. I was intrigued and astonished to learn about such a horrific tragedy that seemed essentially unknown. And I wanted to tell people about it.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from–character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Which of those was the impetus for The Finder of Forgotten Things, as well as your other novels?
Sarah: My stories are super character-driven with setting coming in a close second. Sometimes I don’t realize what the theme is until I’m done writing! My stories are about the people of Appalachia—the folks I grew up knowing and loving. And showcasing them in these mountains I love is just about my favorite thing to do!
What is your personal connection to the setting? Explain.
Sarah: The farm I grew up on in WV has been in our family for eight generations now. I’m generation number seven and my niece is number eight. I’m hoping she’ll pass the land (and the stories) on down! We’ve been rooted in these mountains since before the Civil War. I’ve been steeped in Appalachia since before I was born and want to share the bittersweet beauty of my favorite place with as many people as possible!
How did you decide to use three points of view: Sulley’s, Jeremiah’s, and Gainey’s?
Sarah: I’m a big fan of three points of view. I’ve written from two as well and I find three gives me more opportunities to share information with readers but not with the other characters. I also often have a romantic thread in my stories and a third POV throws off the notion that the story is focused on the romance.
How well did you know your main three characters at the beginning of the novel, or did you primarily get to know them as you wrote?
Sarah: I knew Sulley pretty well! He’s loosely based on my great Uncle Celly (Marcellus) who was quite a scoundrel in our little community. My great Aunt Bess, who remembered him, once told me he liked to draw pictures but only of the devil and naked ladies. Her brother once asked Celly how he knew what the devil looked like, and he said, “Seen him many a time.” Now that’s a character I HAD to put in a story! Of course, I sanded some of his rough edges and gave him a chance to be redeemed. Gainey and Jeremiah were more generally sketched in my mind and took shape as the story evolved.
Did the plot stick to a pre-determined plan or did it evolve?
Sarah: Did my editor tell you to ask me that? I write from what I describe as a compass-point plot. I know where I’m starting, I know where I want to end up, and I know a few key points along the way. I take my compass readings and off I go to see what I can discover between here and there! So, yeah, my stories evolve. When I write, I’m telling myself a story and if I already know all the details, I’ll get bored. Few things are more fun than being surprised by my own story!
What intrigues you most about this time period? What elements (besides the Hawks Nest Tunnel) did you want to include from the get-go? What kind of research was involved?
Sarah: I didn’t set out to write stories set during the Great Depression. I mean, who does that? Well, Kristin Hannah, but that puts me in good company. The historical event dictated the time period and what I appreciated as I researched it was that—while times were hard—I don’t think they were quite so bleak in WV as they were in the dust bowl of the prairies. Times had been hard. They were still hard. And people knew how to live off the land. West Virginians have a fiercely independent streak tempered with a well-honed sense of humor. I hope I captured that! This was the first time I offered a list of books for additional reading at the end of the novel. There’s excellent information about the tunnel disaster for anyone who wants to dig deeper.
Any other thoughts on The Finder of Forgotten Things?
Sarah: I often include an element of the miraculous in my stories. In Miracle in a Dry Season Perla could feed as many as were hungry. In When Silence Sings Colman had inexplicably acute hearing. Sulley’s ability to dowse for water falls into that category, which was kind of funny since, at first, I didn’t think of it as magical or mystical since I grew up around farmers who dowsed for wells as if it were hard science. The thing is, Sulley doesn’t really believe in dowsing himself—it’s just a tool he uses to scam people and if he happens to actually find water so much the better. It’s only when he starts finding water—and missing items—and even people that he begins to sense something happening that’s bigger than himself. Something that might even be miraculous.
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as a writer? Was there a book that sparked or confirmed your desire to be a novelist?
Sarah: Wendell Berry is my literary hero. He made me want to be a poet and then when I read his novels, he made me realize prose can be poetic as well. And it was Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series that helped me see how a faith message could be woven seamlessly into incredibly powerful fiction.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Sarah: As you likely guessed from my response to how my stories evolve, I’m more of a pantser. Although I will say a general outline is indispensable in keeping me from shooting off in completely unplanned and unsupported directions! My actual writing time for a book is about nine months then I take the next three to edit and rewrite before turning it over to an editor—so a full year to have something I’m willing to let others read. I generally aim to write 1,000 words a day and typically do that in the evenings when all my other tasks are finished. Writing is my reward!
You have numerous novels set in West Virginia, some in the 1930s, a few in the 1950s, one contemporary. Will you ever venture into another location or time period? Please share something about a future project or the direction you want to go.
Sarah: I like to say I write historical novels set in the not-so-distant past. I started writing mid-twentieth century stories because those were the stories I grew up hearing my dad tell. A big part of my brand is nostalgia, so I look to write novels set in time periods that either my readers remember themselves or that they remember their parents/grandparents talking about. Currently I have two stories I’m messing around with—one features Hank Williams (senior!) and the other is about a prison without walls—literally. Both are set in West Virginia in the 1940s/50s. Although I do have this idea for a Civil War era novel . . .
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Sarah: Not to sound flippant—but the best advice I’ve ever gotten is to just sit down and write. Write every day. Then read what you write and rewrite it. And when you think maybe it’s pretty good, let someone else read it (not your mother or best friend). And then listen to what your reader has to say. Often, the hardest part of writing is letting someone else read your words and have an opinion about them. Maybe not a great opinion. Writing groups and writing contests are excellent for this. Turn loose of your words—that’s how they become powerful.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy The Finder of Forgotten Things, you might enjoy my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, also with a southern Appalachian setting 36 years later (1968). Though set in western North Carolina rather than West Virginia, my story shows the connections in a tight-knit community of a small rural town. Instead of the tunnel disaster, northern exploitation threatens. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
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Sarah Loudin Thomas grew up on a 100-acre farm in French Creek, WV, the seventh generation to live there. Her Christian fiction is set in West Virginia and celebrates the people, the land, and the heritage of Appalachia.
Sarah is the director of Jan Karon’s Mitford Museum in Hudson, NC. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Coastal Carolina University and is the author of the acclaimed novels The Right Kind of Fool–winner of the 2021 Selah Book of the Year–and Miracle in a Dry Season–winner of the 2015 Inspy Award. Sarah has also been a finalist for the Christy Award, ACFW Carol Award, and the Christian Book of the Year Award. She and her husband live in western North Carolina. Visit her website here.
Join me next time for a visit with author Amanda Cox.
Meanwhile, have you read The Finder of Forgotten Things? What unusual or long-lost thing have you found? Answer in the comments below.