—Waters Run Wild by Andrea Fekete (Guest Room Press, 2018)
Andrea Fekete’s first novel Waters Run Wild was originally published in 2010. Even though it garnered rave reviews and the author’s work has been widely anthologized, the book suffered the fate of many independent press titles, and has long been out of print. Fortunately, this powerful novel of a family’s struggles during the West Virginia Mine Wars is back in an enhanced edition that introduces new readers to an outstanding voice and allows those who enjoyed its earlier version to reacquaint themselves with its elegant language and compelling characters.
Waters Run Wild is told through multiple points of view, each short chapter a first-person narrative as well as part of a mosaic that describes life in a mining camp. Jennie is an older sister who is forced into adulthood as her family ekes out a living in the distressed community of Caney Branch, West Virginia. Her father and her two brothers, Isaac and Ezra, are employed in the coal mines and navigate the dangers of working underground and dealing with the threat of Baldwin-Felts detectives hired to keep miners servile. Jennie’s sensitive yet resilient nature contrasts with the hardened character of her younger sister Katie and the innocence of the youngest of the siblings, Anna May.
The novel’s mosaic is completed by the Hernandez family, part of the contingent of Mexican workers employed in the mines; Nandi, a miner and recent arrival from Hungary (Fekete is the granddaughter of Mexican and Hungarian immigrant coal miners); and Fannie Garrison, an African American teacher who sets up a school for the African American children in the camp.
Miners are underpaid, and when they die, their families are evicted from the camp. This climate inspires them to form a union and Ezra to become one of its leaders. His family bears the brunt of antagonizing the mine owners and their hired thugs.
As the novel enters historical territory, Fekete does not lose sight of the characters, telling an intimate story that nevertheless has an epic sweep. Coupled with the author’s ear for dialect and eye for description, Waters Run Wild often resembles a poetic ethnography, capturing life in a period of American history from which we still have much to learn.
While the novel is more focused on the impact of the mine wars on a family than the conflict itself, it leaves room for non-human characters—a creek, the snow, falling leaves—to also speak in some of the novel’s most beautiful passages. In its lushness, Fekete’s prose is sometimes reminiscent of the magical realist writers of Latin America and especially one of the movement’s antecedents, literary feminist pioneer María Luisa Bombal. Like Bombal, Fekete transcends plain realism and interweaves the characters’ emotions and thoughts with the landscape—eyes can be “gray and blue like a soft quilt, a sky about to cry all over the dirt” while the mountains are both a stabilizing and oppressive presence—enhancing the stark reality of the hills.
Early in the story, Jennie reflects about the future: “I’ve seen my Mama’s hands slowly twist up like the branch of a rotting tree over the years from all the planting, the packing, the canning, the digging (…) Can’t those hands dig through these mountains, build our own road, a road for girls like us?” The hard-wrought answer lies at the end of this rich debut novel.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.