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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
Mingo by W. Jeff Barnes takes us to the rugged mountains of West Virginia and coal country not long after the beginning of the twentieth century. Two young boys, Durwood and Bascom Matney, have just buried their mother, alongside their sister. Durwood’s father decides that he would be a lot better, for the time being, being raised in Richmond by his mother’s distant cousin and so ships the young boy off. Bascom, at fourteen, has already joined his father down the mines but Durwood must come to terms with not only living with the rich and privileged in Richmond but that he will also face peer discrimination because of his “hillbilly” background. When Bascom turns eighteen, a seminal event down the mine, when one of his friends is killed in an accident, convinces him it is time to leave mining behind and head to Richmond to catch up with his younger brother and seek his future. Whilst making a future for himself in Richmond, Bascom discovers his cousin’s family back in Mingo County are suffering greatly through a miners' strike and violent reprisals by the mine owners. He determines to head back to Mingo County to help his cousin and his family out, while Durwood, feeling abandoned again by his brother, decides to sever all ties with his family and embrace his comfortable life in Richmond. The next time the two brothers meet they will be on opposite sides of a violent event that later became known as the Matewan Massacre, where both brothers will have to decide truly where their loyalties lie; to family or to personal convictions.
Mingo is a particularly compelling familial drama that places two brothers on either side of an ideological battle. W. Jeff Barnes does a truly fantastic job of developing both these lead characters to the point where the reader struggles to choose between them and their respective viewpoints. I particularly enjoyed the depth of character the author was able to develop in these two young men and the explosive tension that was carried right through to the last page of the novel. Based on true historical events that lend this story credence and a true sense of injustice, I was totally immersed in this tale from the very opening paragraph. The author’s descriptive prose took me deep into the mountains, to a place I’d never been before, and showed me not only the beauty and the starkness of the area but also the depths of poverty and helplessness that the working man faced in early twentieth-century America, especially in the mining industry. The right to organize labor that many enjoy today partly came from the rugged fortitude and courage of these early labor pioneers such as the coal miners of West Virginia and the author is to be congratulated for highlighting their heroic struggle in this story. Stories such as this, with a basis in historical events, give the author license to examine the relationship between familial love and duty with philosophical ideals. Barnes does this superbly, presenting both entrenched sides of the debate clearly and sensibly through his characters. I thoroughly enjoyed this read and can highly recommend it.