Emily Jenkins had every reason to distrust the electrical crews building their massive steel high-tension towers on a right-of-way purchased from her family's mountain farm. She suspected that the company got her family's land for less than they should have paid. Her father and brother had been killed in a mine explosion all too common in the West Virginia of the 1920s and she and her mother needed the money. Even worse, a tentative friendship she struck up with a handsome company executive had taken a very wrong turn. So it was with great suspicion that she greeted a crew of linemen bearing a severely injured comrade who plummeted from a tower one stormy evening.

Much to her surprise, though, the arrival of this stranger proves to be a turning point in Emily's life. Her story is told in captivating fashion in Lick Creek, a noteworthy debut novel by Brad Kessler. Already an award-winning children's author, Kessler masterfully expands his range by weaving the story of Emily's young womanhood with the experiences of Joseph, a Russian Jewish immigrant who discovers magic in the wires lacing the big cities. Lick Creek conjures the mystery and tranquility of the deep West Virginia mountains, an area so remote that the continent's second-oldest river was dubbed the "New" because the gorge through which it flows lay unexplored for so long. Kessler relates the hazards of coal mining in the offhand manner in which the miners accept the risks, so that when dozens of lives end with a blast that reverberates throughout the valley, it comes as a shock but not a surprise. Kessler draws the reader eagerly toward a conclusion reminiscent of the great novel Cold Mountain, in which the events of decades past are connected with people living decades later. This superb first novel adds to the laurels Kessler has received for his children's books.

Gregory Harris is a writer and editor in Indianapolis who enjoys whitewater rafting on West Virginia's New River.

 

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