"Under all is the land." This is the first tenet learned in real estate courses, but it could also serve as a fitting adage for the flyleaf of Silas House's latest novel, The Coal Tattoo, set in his beloved (and native) eastern Kentucky hill country near the fictitious Altamont mine. The coal mines have always been double-edged swords: they provide a means of livelihood, yet also claim many lives. Likewise, a coal tattoo, the "faint little hint of blue" sometimes left beneath the skin of a person who has survived the collapse of a mine, also has conflicting interpretations most see it as a sign of survival, but for others it is a mark of sacrifice. A prequel to his well-received first novel, Clay's Quilt, The Coal Tattoo brings us into the early lives of the Sizemore sisters, Easter and Anneth, who have lost both father and mother to the mines. The girls are raised by their grandmothers but grow up profoundly different. As Easter understates it, "Not all sisters are just alike," and their temperaments drive them down divergent paths.
Easter leads a simple, peaceful life. She imagines that people whizzing past on the new highway would look at her small town and "be thankful that they themselves lived in places where there were fancy restaurants and tall buildings and jobs that you had to get dressed up for," but her life does not "feel little at all to her." Anneth, on the other hand, rushes toward new experiences and at 16 runs off to Nashville with a musician. Her erratic and impious behavior continues to drive a wedge between her and her devoutly Pentecostal sister, but commonalities emerge a love of music, loyalty to family and friends, and a fierce devotion to their small corner of the world. When strip-mining threatens to ruin the mountain behind their home, the sisters unite against formidable adversaries.
House's beautiful third novel is both a story of survival and sacrifice and a stirring testament to the love of the land. Linda Stankard writes from Nanuet, New York.