Storming Heaven Summary

Denise Giardina

Storming Heaven

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Storming Heaven Summary

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Storming Heaven is a historical novel by American author Denise Giardina, first published in 1987. It is set in Annadel, West Virginia, a coal-rich town that falls apart when a ruthless coal company moves in and sets about buying and stealing everything in the town it can get its hands on. Told through the life stories of four diverse narrators—an activist mayor, a lonely union activist, a brave nurse, and a grieving old immigrant who lost four sons to the mines—Storming Heaven chronicles the miners’struggle for a union against the ruthless coal company, leading up to the historic Battle of Blair Mountain. Combining real events with fictional characters, Storming Heaven explores themes of political corruption, the strength of the human spirit, and the role of the working class in American history against the backdrop of the United States labor movement. Critically acclaimed and considered one of the best works of fiction about the Appalachian South, it received the Discovery Selection award from the Book-of-the-Month Club and was the winner of the 1987 W. D. Weatherford Award.

Life in rural southwestern West Virginia continues much as it has for generations. A mostly agrarian society, the people live season to season and farm the land for survival. However, rumors start to circle that the railroad company wants to take over the land for mineral rights. Soon, agents of the railroad start appearing and approaching people, asking them to sign away their mineral rights. While many sign, some are doggedly opposed to giving up any of their rights. CJ Marcum’s grandfather is one of those; when he turns away the railroad agents, he is murdered soon afterwards. The sheriff shows up and claims that CJ’s grandfather signed a document giving away the land. CJ knows this is a lie, because his grandfather was illiterate and never learned to sign his name, but his family is forced off the land, nonetheless. Other families, living on less desirable land, are left alone for the time being. These include the Bishop family, including young nurse Carrie Bishop, whose family runs a farm called the Homeplace. As the coal companies increasingly move into the town, carving up farmland for their mines, the Homeplace continues as it always did, though no one knows for how long.

Soon, the coal companies begin employing more and more people in the area, and they start building camps near the minds to house the workers. One resident is Rondal Lloyd, who grows up in one of the camps and describes the poverty and squalor that the miners experience. The camp is constantly covered in black dust, and while the miners work long, hard hours, they are constantly in debt because the company requires that they pay for board at the camp and make all their purchases at the company store. The prices at these places are inflated, yet the miners have no choice to shop elsewhere. This means that they are always working to pay off their debt, and never have any money of their own. More people in town begin to realize that the powerful companies are exploiting them. Rondal becomes a union activist, despite the danger this presents. CJ Marcum becomes Mayor of Annadel, advocating for the rights of the citizens. The coal company finds an unlikely enemy in Sicilian immigrant Rose Angelelli, an elderly woman who lost four sons to the mines and is determined not to see any more young men go to their deaths. The Homeplace remains a contrast to the mining camps, and the town of Annadel stands apart from the discrimination and violence common at the time. Carrie and Rondal develop a close connection.

The brutal conditions in the mines reach a boiling point, and more and more workers join the labor union. These attempts to organize are met with severe oppression and violence, as the coal companies bring in armed enforcers to evict, assault, and even murder union men. However, this only hardens the will of the workers, as they grow more determined to get out from under the yoke of the coal companies. The violence escalates until the Battle of Blair Mountain erupts. This real life event was the largest labor uprising in United States history, where ten thousand armed coal miners fought three thousand strikebreakers and local law enforcement officials, and did not end until the United States Army intervened to break the strike. Although the fight ended in tragedy for the workers, their will persisted and the battle is considered the spark that lit the union flame in the United States.

Denise Giardina is an American novelist who has written four major works. Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth are both set in West Virginia’s coalfields during the twentieth century, and both were critically acclaimed, with the latter receiving both an American Book Award and the Lillian Smith Book Award for Fiction. Her other two novels, Good King Harry and Saints and Villains, are fictionalized biographies of King Henry V and Dietrich Bonhoeffer respectively. Giardina is a vocal labor activist, and ran for Governor of West Virginia as the candidate of the newly formed Mountain Party, coming in third in the 2000 general election.