BOOK REVIEW: 'Redemption Mountain': West Virginia As It Really Is, Warts and All

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Redemption Mountain': West Virginia As It Really Is, Warts and All

Gerry FitzGerald believes in miracles. I don't know this for sure, but when his publish-on-demand 2009 novel "The Pie Man" was picked up by major publisher Henry Holt and Company and published on June 25 under the new title "Redemption Mountain" (448 pages, $28.00) it has all the elements of a miracle in today's fluid world of publishing. Publishers are consolidating, merging and -- I imagine -- shaking with fear as  Amazon.com is now publishing books -- instead of just selling them.

I reviewed "The Pie Man" in 2009 and I just received my review copy of "Redemption Mountain". I've just finished reading it and I find very little to change from the 2009 review. There's plenty of youth soccer in both books, although Gerry tells me there's less in "Redemption Mountain".

Gerry FitzGerald assures me that it's essentially the same novel, "edited, tightened, and shortened" as he told me in an email.

If you don't know much about how West Virginia has been treated like a third world country or a colony by big business -- and is still being treated like one -- let Pullman "Hank" Hankinson educate you about the Battle of Blair Mountain, the Matewan Massacre, the assassination of Sid Hatfield, the Buffalo Creek dam disaster and other ways the beautiful Mountain State has been trashed by outsiders -- as Hank does with Charlie Burden. 

Charlie Burden, his wife Ellen, Natty Oakes, Hankinson, Eve Brewster, Emma Lowe, Buck Oakes, and of course Boyd (The Pie man) Oakes -- these are all people who come to life with FitzGerald's portrayal of them and other residents of the fictional town of Red Bone in the very real McDowell County, WV. 

Outsiders typically either demonize or beatify people in their novels. FitzGerald avoids this trap, creating well defined characters with very human flaws. FitzGerald has visited McDowell County, but admitted in a telephone interview that he was basically a short-term visitor to the area. "I never spent any prolonged time in West Virginia", he said. "My knowledge comes through reading a great many different things. In addition to the books mentioned in the acknowledgments, one of my greatest sources of information was the Welch Daily News, which I subscribed to for about three years back when I was formulating and then beginning the story". 

Natty Oakes is in her late twenties and is the mother of two children, 12-year-old Boyd, The Pie Man, who was born with Down Syndrome, and his younger sister Cat. She's married to Buck Oakes, an abusive man who takes out his failures in life on those around him, including his wife. Even Buck's sister, Eve Brewster, who runs a convenience store in Red Bone, hates the way he treats Natty and ignores his two children. 

Into this insular world of people who know all the secrets of the town comes Lexus-driving Charlie Burden, a partner in a New York City engineering firm that has designed and is supervising the construction of a gigantic state-of-the art clean coal-burning electricity generating plant in McDowell County. He's taking over the job of "Big Mule" -- a coal mining term for the top boss -- after his grossly obese predecessor dies of a heart attack in a strip club. 

Charlie, in his very late 40s, is married to the lovely Ellen, a year or so older, who's involved in the activities of their country club in Westchester County, the county north of New York City where Bill and Hillary Clinton have a home. Their son is a successful stockbroker in Boston, while their daughter is attending Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, which happens to be where FitzGerald earned his graduate degree. Their world couldn't be more different than Red Bone, WV, but Charlie Burden, possessed of all the toys of a wealthy man, is at a "Is That All There Is?" stage of his life. 

Charlie wants his firm, Dietrich Delahunt & Mackey, to send him to China to supervise a gigantic construction project. He's tired of being a computer user and paper shuffler at the firm and wants to get his hands and feet dirty in the field. Instead he's sent to West Virginia on what he considers to be a routine assignment. 

After a brief stay in a company owned condo in Bluefield, he decides to live closer to the job site and rents an apartment in a building owned by Eve Brewster in Red Bone. That's where he meets Natty, a runner like him, coach of The Bones, an under-14 soccer team and the mother of The Pie Man. His next door neighbor is Pullman (Hank) Hankinson, a retired teacher and the man who plays cribbage with him and who educates Charlie in the ways of how corporate America has treated West Virginia like a Third World colony by Big Coal, Big Railroads and Big Industry in general for more than 100 years. 

Burden becomes The Pie Man's best friend in West Virginia. He runs with Natty and is charmed by her to the point where he admits to himself -- and soon to Natty -- that he's falling in love. Yes, there are elements of a Romance novel in "The Pie Man", with the ruggedly handsome hero and the attractive heroine. This is also a novel of the sturm und drang of big business, as various elements opposed to Burden and his mentor, senior partner Lucien Mackey, try to take over the firm. It's also a novel of political corruption and powerful Charleston law firms run by faux good ole boys who know how to make things happen -- like obtaining a permit for a mountaintop removal coal mine to feed the maw of the new electrical plant and buying farms of people in the way of "progress". 

With a minimal budget, Natty has coached her soccer team into a powerhouse in the county and even in adjacent Mercer and Wyoming counties, thanks to skillful players like Emma Lowe, a 13-year-old black girl playing on a team composed of boys. Emma's reputation has attracted the notice of scouts from the University of North Carolina, which has produced some of the best women soccer players in the nation, most famously Mia Hamm. Natty is the closest character in the book to saintliness, serving as a home health aide to retired miners and running a children's library in a run-down building near the soccer field. 

I won't give away any more of the plot, other than to say it involves scenes of violence, conflict, humor and self-realization. The depiction of the chartered bus trip to New York will have you laughing and crying at the same time. Buck and Charlie take to the woods to challenge two veteran French-Canadian lumberjacks in a male-bonding scene of great power. 

"Redemption Mountain" is a first-rate depiction of a state that has suffered at the hands of outsiders, including writers and moviemakers -- John Sayles of "Matewan" fame excluded. In fact, John Sayles might be the perfect filmmaker to bring "The Pie Man" to the big screen. Or maybe Daniel Boyd, who cast my late, great friend and former colleague at The Register-Herald, Neale Clark, in his films "Paradise Park" and "Invasion of the Space Preachers." (Clark was also in "Matewan," playing Isaac, one of the mountain men who came to the aid of the miners dispossed by Baldwin-Felts.) Neale would have made an outstanding Hank Hankinson. 

Gerry FitzGerald spent almost 10 years writing a book that anyone familiar with West Virginia will appreciate and enjoy. Very few books make the leap from self-publish/publish on demand to being issued by a distinguished publisher like Henry Holt and Company. One of the nation's oldest publishers, Holt was founded in 1866. Holt has published works by many internationally renowned authors, such as Erich Fromm, Paul Auster, Hilary Mantel, Robert Frost, Hermann Hesse, Norman Mailer, Herta Müller, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ivan Turgenev and H.G. Wells and now, drum roll: Gerry FitzGerald! I urge everybody to buy the book, and, while you're at it, buy an extra box of Kleenex: You'll need it! 

 

About the Author: Gerry FitzGerald has owned his own advertising agency for nearly 30 years in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is a Viet Nam veteran and a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Gerry and his wife, Robin, live in East Longmeadow, MA.  

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