- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

THE COAL TATTOO

By Silas House

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $22.95, 324 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

Silas House is one of the rising stars in the field of American fiction. The young Appalachian native won a slew of awards for his first two novels, “Clay’s Quilt” (2001) and “A Parchment of Leaves” (2002). Now, with “The Coal Tattoo,” he returns true to form, telling a strong and compelling story.

Two orphaned sisters, Easter and Anneth Sizemore, have entered adulthood during the mid-1950s while living in a house on a small piece of land long owned by their family in the coal-mining region of eastern Kentucky. Bound ferociously close to each other by ties of blood and heritage, the sisters are quite unalike. The elder of the two, Easter, is morally upright, a member of the local Pentecostal church, and has no truck with modern silliness like dancing, drinking, smoking, and anything else that leads to loss of dignity.

Anneth, the younger, is something of a hell-raiser who basically practices everything Easter abhors. The sisters live in an uncomfortable, recognizable relationship in which Easter tries to bring Anneth into the straight and narrow way, Anneth tries to live her own life, and each is the despair of the other, even as each admires the other.

Mr. House recognizes and respects the complexities of human character. Thus, as is typical of the author’s fiction, Easter and Anneth are not cardboard cutouts representing common literary types, such as The-Prim-Christian-Believer-Who-Needs-To- Loosen-Up or The-Free-Spirit-Who-Has-So-Much-To-Teach-Us-All. Each is a bundle of surprises who shares with the other more traits than she would care to admit. They are two parts of the human spirit: one very earthy, the other spiritual, yet neither being wholly comfortable without the other.

The presence of their long-departed grandmothers — the quiet, pantheistic Cherokee woman named Vine and the loud, down-to-earth Scotch-Irish Serena — is ever-lingering in their thoughts and lives. Like their granddaughters, Vine and Serena were unalike in many ways, yet united in their love for their land, their kin, and the folkways and natural beauty of eastern Kentucky. (The story of Vine and Serena is told in Mr. House’s previous novel, “A Parchment of Leaves.”).

Having more of Vine’s nature than Serena’s, Easter has something akin to second sight: she can at times see the spirits of her family’s dead wandering her land, and while they do not frighten her they do puzzle her. Why are these spirits bound to the land?

Anneth has no such visions and is satisfied — for a time, at least — with the things the day-to-day world has to offer: partying, fast cars, and in general having her material needs met. Yet even when she ought to be happy, Anneth becomes afflicted with a profound sense of desolation, sensing that there is something hollow about her life.

Over the course of a decade or a little longer, we see the sisters marry men of the community, with Easter marrying a faithful, hard-working, hard-drinking man named El, and Anneth marrying three times: first to a good man with dreams of becoming a music star in Nashville, then to a wealthy man of weak character, and finally to a well-meaning man who worships her but will in time (she senses) expect her to worship him.

By novel’s end, Easter has borne a stillborn baby and survived blackest despair, while Anneth has given birth out of wedlock to a little boy she names Clay. The sisters determine that they will raise the baby together. (Clay’s own story is told in the novel “Clay’s Quilt.”) In time, each of the sisters learns a truth articulated long ago in a novel by George Orwell: “Faith dies, but the need for faith remains.” Faith can die to rise again, stronger and more mature than ever — whether it be faith in God or faith in the love of one’s family and the enduring truths of life. For faith to live, one’s sense of self-sufficiency must be sacrificed.

A key symbol in the sisters’ understanding of sacrifice is the “Coal Tattoo” of the book’s title. This “tattoo” is a mysterious badge of honor borne by coal miners who have been hurt but not killed during mining cave-ins. Where falling coal and rock strikes the skin, a dark “tattoo” appears that never goes away. The Appalachian people consider it a mark of survival as well as a sign of sacrifice. With sacrifice can come redemption.

In the novel, the mysterious coal tattoo appears on the forehead of Easter’s stillborn child, to her despair. What can this mean, other than a mocking hieroglyphic sent by an uncaring God? But it is not that. This symbol of dying to self and sacrificing one’s own desires for the well-being of another begins to make sense when Easter chooses to live again after her dark night of the soul and volunteers to raise the child of the pregnant-out-of-wedlock Anneth. The sisters also risk injury and imprisonment when they join forces with their Aunt Sophie in an unsuccessful attempt to block the strip-mining of their land.

In this and his other novels, Mr. House takes note of little everyday details that are familiar to everyone, but which few of his fellow novelists would bother to record: such things such as a letter writer accidentally dropping her pen on the floor in mid-sentence and watching it roll away, or the way American motorists who cross a state line tend to look in their rear-view mirrors to see the “Welcome” sign leading into the state they’ve just left.

He also observes those moments of magic that come into everyone’s life perhaps once in a lifetime, moments that are unseen by others. One of the most memorable scenes in “The Coal Tattoo” occurs in a flashback to Anneth’s girlhood, to a time when Vine took her granddaughter outdoors one night to walk among a flock of silent redbirds that had landed in their backyard. In the darkness the cardinals allowed the careful humans to bend and gently stroke the feathers on their backs.

And Mr. House remembers. His characters love music — a constant presence in this author’s fiction — and speak a language that has almost become homogenized out of existence in American mass culture, harking to the Scotch-Irish roots of the people he has known. To his characters, the early evening hours when the world begins to darken are not the twilight, but the gloaming.

He remembers also the books that have influenced him and makes reference in “The Coal Tattoo” to such modern classics as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Reynolds Price’s “A Long and Happy Life,” and Earl Hamner’s “Spencer’s Mountain.” In an interview, Mr. House said, “I have a strong desire to tell my stories for other people. I pour myself out on the page, and I hope the reader can feel that. I want readers to be as intrigued by the characters as I am.”

In “The Coal Tattoo” he has succeeded in telling the ongoing stories of the Sizemores of Clay County, Kentucky, in a manner that brings dignity and honor to the people he has known and loved all his life, telling in crystalline prose the life stories of intriguing characters.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” and a forthcoming critical biography of Virginia novelist/screenwriter Earl Hamner.

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