by Robert WeibezahlMay 2010
A storied past
Marrowbone Cut, the central location in The Marrowbone Marble Company, is a West Virginia mountain hollow with a mythic quality—a place out of time. Yet the events that transpire there are all too real, fueled by optimism, but tempered with violence.
The story begins in 1941. Loyal Ledford, an 18-year-old orphan, works the swing shift at the Mann Glass Company and dates the owner’s granddaughter, Rachel. Ledford is a restless young man, and after Pearl Harbor, he is keen to enlist. At Guadalcanal, he witnesses unspeakable horrors and, caught up in the bloodthirst of war, partakes in his own savage act of revenge—a moment that will haunt him forever and shape the outcome of his life.
Back home, Ledford marries Rachel, who inherits the factory and bears the first of their three children. Marked by his war experiences, Ledford descends into a state of drunkenness, but is rescued from a desultory fate by Don Staples, a theologian with a steadfast, almost 19th-century sense of righteousness. Through Staples, Ledford meets his cousins, the last inhabitants of the family’s contested land holdings at Marrowbone. Inspired by a dream, he moves his family to the mountains and starts the Marrowbone Marble Company, manufacturers of glass playing marbles.
Ledford’s venture attracts like-minded folks who yearn for a communal utopia. One pioneer is Mack Wells, a black man whom Ledford befriended at the glass company. From the start, the friendship between these two men of different races raises eyebrows in the segregated South, and the interracial living at Marrowbone enrages some of the white people in the surrounding community. As the 1950s give way to the ’60s, Marrowbone becomes both a beacon for the Civil Rights movement and a target for its enemies. Ledford and the others battle the endemic graft that is diverting federal War on Poverty monies into the pockets of local politicos. Their efforts will circle back to the kind of violence that Ledford has spent his postwar life trying to prevent.
A beautifully realized novel, The Marrowbone Marble Company hinges on important mileposts of the mid-20th century: World War II, racism, the Civil Rights movement and liberalism vs. Communism. Yet in some ways, the narrative feels untouched by our modern age, for although he writes of relatively recent history, Taylor—whose first novel, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, was a finalist for the NBCC Award—employs burnished prose that suggests an older time. This old-fashioned, leisurely approach captures the timelessness of the West Virginia landscape, and it also aids in the slow development of its artfully drawn characters. Central among these is Loyal Ledford himself. A renegade who rejects the precast American Dream for something more elusive, perhaps even unattainable, this scarred, flawed man embodies a familiar component of our national character: hope