Journalist Biggers tallies up the human cost of more than two centuries of coal mining in southern Illinois in an intimate, informative yet uneven book. Part historical narrative, part family memoir, part pastoral paean, and part jeremiad against the abuse of the land and of the men who gave and continue to give their lives to (and often for) the mines, the book puts a human face on the industry that supplies nearly half of America’s energy. Biggers excavates the history beneath the homestead at Eagle Creek where his family lived for eight generations. The displacement of the indigenous Shawnee, the hidden legacy of slavery, the bitter and bloody conflicts between miners and their bosses, and the environmental devastation wrought by the mines are detailed as part and parcel of the region’s coal-mining history—a history obliterated along with the mountaintops and clean streams scraped away by the miners’ steam shovels. Written in a personal and poetic style, the book suffers from poor organization, but it offers a rare historical perspective on the vital yet little considered industry, along with a devastating critique of the myth of “clean coal.” (Feb.)
Journalist Biggers takes a look at coal and its role in the history of southern Illinois as well as its human and environmental costs. Biggers also tells a personal story as he chronicles the saga of his family's strip-mined homestead in an area that one day would be a part of the Shawnee National Forest. Hailed by politicians and businesspeople as the Saudi Arabia of coal, southern Illinois has a long record of natural resources exploitation. Biggers surveys the history of slave labor in the salt mines of the region, the early explorers who identified coal resources, the Native Americans who inhabited the region and were later pushed out, union activity in the minefields led by Mother Jones and John L. Lewis, the environmental degradation caused by strip mines, and the accidents and black-lung disease that killed miners. VERDICT A lot of history is presented here in a personal style by a cultural historian with a keen eye. A valuable read for followers of environmental history.—Patricia Ann Owens, Wabash Valley Coll., Mt. Carmel, IL
Bloomsbury Review contributing editor Biggers (In the Sierra Madre, 2006, etc.) takes on Big Coal in this enriching history. The author's forebears hailed from Eagle Creek, Ill., tucked away in the Shawnee National Forest and rich in several coal veins, now devastated by strip mining. By 1998 the last relation had sold what was left of the homestead to the encroaching coal company, which was relentlessly blasting the surrounding hills until it resembled "the scene of a crime." Biggers aims at the root of the wrong-headed decisions over the last two centuries, which allowed southern Illinois, called the "Saudi Arabia of coal," to reach such a desperate pass. The author moves between the big and the small picture. After noting that 42 to 45 percent of the U.S. electrical needs are supplied by coal and that over 40 percent of CO2 emissions come from coal-fired plants, he fashions affecting memories of his miner grandfather who died from black lung. Biggers addresses stereotypes of the hillbilly in these so-called Illinois Ozarks, which suffer from the same economic and social blights as Appalachia, and examines local efforts to organize a Shawnee Indian settlement, after they were driven out by the strip miners in the 1960s. He also excavates the lost early history of the use of African slaves and Native Americans to work the salt and mineral mines of Illinois and Missouri. Biggers delves into the fascinating legacy of the union organizers such as Mother Jones, John L. Lewis and Agnes Burns Wieck, the progressive movement and the explosion of mine accidents that accompanied the height of production in the 1910s and '20s, and he considers the oxymoron "clean coal" and the "boondoggle"FutureGen as further ways to disguise the "dirty realities" of coal. An important look at the staggering human and environmental costs of mining.
From the Publisher
"This is a world-shaking, belief-rattling, immensely important book. If you're an American, it is almost a patriotic duty to read it."Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
"Part historical narrative, part family memoir, part pastoral paean, and part jeremiad against the abuse of the land and of the men who gave and continue to give their lives to (and often for) the mines, [Reckoning at Eagle Creek] puts a human face on the industry that supplies nearly half of America’s energy… it offers a rare historical perspective on the vital yet little considered industry, along with a devastating critique of the myth of ‘clean coal.’”Publishers Weekly
“[An] enriching history and an important look at the staggering human and environmental costs of mining.”Kirkus Reviews
“Biggers offers much that’s new, especially concerning events in the coalfields of southern Illinois, where his grandfather worked in the pits, where strip mining began, where Mother Jones organized workers, and where some of our nation’s fiercest labor battles were fought.”Scott Russell Sanders, Orion Magazine