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Book review: Novel tells story of coal wars through eyes of brothers

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Inevitably, the world will change by the end of 2022. There are universal hopes that the war in Ukraine will have ended by then and hopefully we will have, at long last, discovered how to better manage COVID. Maybe Santa will even bring a global agreement to address climate change and with it much-needed water for a drought-stricken planet. One thing that will not change between now and the end of the year is that “Mingo,” by W. Jeff Barnes, will remain one of the best books I read in 2022. It is simply that good and that memorable.

(Public disclaimer—the author is an attorney in Richmond and was once the college roommate of Judge William Glover, who has occasionally reviewed books for this very page. Glover is also a very good friend of mine who has been quite generous with his beer and the riverside views from his backyard. As such, there was modest risk in my reviewing his former roommate’s début novel, but fortunately the book is fantastic and I can look at my reflection in the Rappahannock River and drink free beer with a clear conscience.)

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“Mingo” is told over a couple of decades in the early 20th century and is the story of Durwood and Bascom Matney, who are born and raised in the coal country of southeastern West Virginia (the title’s name is taken from a county in West Virginia). The boys’ mother dies of cancer when they are young and a well-off cousin agrees to raise Durwood in Richmond while Bascom, a few years older than Durwood, continues to go deep into the coal mines six days a week with his father.

Barnes does an admirable job of describing both Richmond in the early 1900s and the coal mining experience in West Virginia, which were worlds apart even though they were only separated by a train ride of a few hours. What Barnes does best, though, is spin an expansive narrative that follows the disparate paths of the brothers until they both find themselves back in Mingo County deep in the coal wars that ripped a community apart and forced a nation to address the horrific conditions in the mines that provided a cheap power source through low wages and on the backs of children.

“Mingo” is that rare reading experience where a reader tears through the book, neglecting sustenance and other obligations, in anticipation of an end that ultimately comes too soon. Any book on coal mining is going to feature loss and misery, but perhaps the greatest misery of all is that the stories and characters of “Mingo” must end, just as the world must, inevitably, change.

FLS book reviewer discusses W. Jeff Barnes' 'Mingo,' a compelling story about two West Virginia brothers who take separate paths after their mother passes away.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer and video book reviewer in Spotsylvania.

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