Book Review: The Mauricewood Devils shines light on a dark chapter in mining history
Two men survived and 63 died, including a 12-year-old boy. It devastated the lives of their dependents, many relying on the miners to keep their families from the poor house. Outside of the immediate area, the disaster is little-known today.
Drawing on her own family history, Dorothy Alexander has fictionalised the events of 1889-1890, telling the story through the eyes of Martha, the daughter of a miner, and her step-mother, Jess, both having lost the man they loved. She intersperses their narratives with contemporary, factual reports, which demonstrate how differently the authorities assessed the events. Alexander has arranged these in 50-word paragraphs in traditional ballad metre. These blunt reports, which concentrate on the financial losses, provide a callous counterpoint to the grief and despair of the families left behind.
The key to the story working as a novel is making Martha’s seven-year-old voice convincing and Alexander achieves this with aplomb. In order to relate the story, Martha must impart facts that most children wouldn’t know or understand but Alexander seamlessly slips them into the child’s narration. Martha is a bright and endearing character who has lived with her grandparents and sister Helen since the death of her mother shortly after her birth. Her grandmother is a hard woman who never fails to let Martha know that she “killed” her mother. The two girls are always hungry and spend most of their time out of school doing chores. They always look forward to their father’s visits with his second wife, Jess, knowing there will be ample food on offer.
Jess is a no less sympathetic character, waiting anxiously until March 1890 for her husband’s body to be brought up from the mine. She works at the nearby paper mill which affords her more choices than many women of the time. She has always wanted her husband’s two girls to live with them but their grandparents want to keep them close at hand. Jess tries to support the women whose men have already been brought up for burial knowing she must face that traumatic day herself.
Through Jess, we see the women who became known as the Mauricewood Devils in a different light from that which is recorded. When the authorities decided to cap the still burning mine, only 30 or so bodies had been recovered. Many families were left in limbo, grieving but without a body or a grave to mark their loss. Several women got together to demonstrate against the mine owners, demanding the mine should be opened and the remaining bodies recovered. Many were taken aback by the women’s courage in taking on such powerful figures; many were horrified that women should behave in such a manner.
The mine was finally reopened in March 1890, and the rest of the miners were recovered. It soon became clear that several men were still alive when the mine shaft was capped, which compounded the families’ horror.
Alexander has used the memories and stories related by members of her own family to add colour and authenticity to her story. The monologues bring a sharp focus to 19th-century life in small mining communities, through the eyes of both a child and an adult. The work was backbreaking with very few health and safety measures, and it wasn’t so long before this period that women and girls worked in the mines too. The social conventions of an underprivileged, working-class community are revealed as people try to pull together and survive the disaster. There was a fund set up to assist the dependents of the Mauricewood miners but the rules as to who qualified were strict. A woman who remarried was immediately cut off and once children reached 14 years they too were left to fend for themselves.
This is an engrossing story about a vital piece of social history. If that sounds dull, be assured that Alexander’s finely wrought characters are anything but. Martha and Jess sparkle amongst the poverty and coal dust, their voices ringing out down the years that have seen too many people lost in industrial disasters. It is an important tale, beautifully told, and deserves to be better known.
Published by Freight Books.
Book Review: Louise Welsh uncovers two thousand years of the ghost story
Award-winning author Louise Welsh (pictured), no slouch when it comes to shredding nerves in her own works, spent 18 months researching and reading ghost stories. The result is this excellent and varied collection of spectral tales and unsettling yarns. The stories, arranged chronologically by date of first publication, feature such luminaries of the genre as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, M R James and Stephen King.
There is also a strong representation of Scottish writers, from Robert Burns and James Hogg, to Ali Smith and Jackie Kay. It is a large, handsome volume that can be dipped into at any point but reading it chronologically does show how the genre has developed over the years. It also makes it easier to discern recurring themes and motifs from early stories to modern-day tales.
Welsh has taken a relaxed view on what constitutes a ghost story and the collection has benefited from some interesting selections. Truman Capote’s A Beautiful Child features a very much alive Marilyn Monroe but Welsh says that reading it she felt she was “in the company of a dead woman walking; a ghost”.
Comedic stories are also included, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, a witty tale where a ghost haunting an English stately home has the tables turned on him by a crass American family. These pieces offer light relief among some dark and disturbing tales, giving the collection a satisfyingly varied rhythm.
Welsh asserts that part of the attraction of supernatural stories is their potential to explore so many facets of the human condition, such as love and loss in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover.
Whether directly or indirectly, they can also explore societal taboos, such as death, incest, madness in Robert Nye’s Randal, and flesh-eating in Mark Twain’s Cannibalism in the Cars. Women feature prominently in many ghost stories with the White Lady ghost being a common theme around the world. She is often a woman who has been wronged by a man and after dying tragically, appears in rural settings.
Governesses also feature as victims or unreliable narrators. Being neither gentry nor servant, these women were a ghostly presence in many households. Tales of ghost children can be very unsettling but in Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Tale, the ghost child isn’t malevolent, merely lonely and seeking a friend. The always-popular vampire stories are represented by Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, and Jewelle Gomez’s New York set, Off-Broadway: 1971.
Although largely an anthology of European stories, Welsh has included tales by African, Japanese, Scandinavian, American, Native American, and African-American writers. This is important, offering an opportunity to detect the similarities and differences in what frightens or disturbs peoples around the world. Stories set abroad, such as W W Jacob’s horror classic, The Monkey’s Paw, are as much about the fear of other cultures than phantoms.
The collection opens with The Haunted House by Pliny the Younger, written in the first century, and ends with James Robertson’s Ghost, a one-page tale written in 2014. In between, Welsh has assembled an enthralling collection of stories about apparitions, hauntings, evil-doers, madness, and psychological distress. She admits that some of her favourite stories failed to make the cut because of copyright or length but this does not detract from the overall quality of the collection.
Some of the tales could easily be read on a dark, stormy night without raising a shiver but there are some that really do benefit from being read in a brightly lit room. It will delight any lover of the ghost story genre.
Published by Hogarth 1/6 October 2015
320pp, hardback, £16.99/$25
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 2016, Hogarth is publishing ‘cover versions’ of some of the bard’s greatest works under the title, The Hogarth Shakespeare. A number of famous authors, including Tracy Chevalier, Margaret Atwood, Edward St Aubyn, Gillian Flynn, Howard Jacobson and Jo Nesbo, will each retell a Shakespearean play in the form of a novel, in celebration of Shakespeare’s reputation as a re-teller of well-known tales.
First into the breach is Jeanette Winterson who takes on The Winter’s Tale, renaming it The Gap of Time, a quote from the end of the play. It is set in London, Paris and New Bohemia in the present day or perhaps the near future. The author helpfully provides a synopsis of the play and main characters before launching in to her own version of the story which she says has special significance for her. As an adopted child, she empathizes with the abandoned Perdita, and says the play has haunted her for many years.
At first the novel feels clumsy and awkward as Winterson introduces the main characters in their new settings and guises. Leontes becomes Leo, a brutal, bullish man who owns a successful hedge fund company called Sicilia. MiMi (Hermione), married to Leo, is a famous American/French singer who is heavily pregnant with their second child. Xeno (Polixenes), Leo’s childhood friend, lives in New Bohemia and is a computer games genius. Leo becomes convinced that MiMi and Xeno have been having an affair and the child that MiMi is carrying is not his. Xeno’s ambiguous sexuality only serves to ramp up Leo’s fury and he decides to kill him. Leo is as obsessed by the thought of his best friend and wife being together as he is by flashbacks to his teenage affair with Xeno.
Once the characters are secured in their settings, Winterson lets the story take flight while remaining true to the plot of the play. She seems to be having fun; referencing herself at one point and breaking the fourth wall at another. It is a witty interpretation of Shakespeare with King Leontes’ court becoming the money markets of London, and one of the king’s henchmen remade as a used car salesman. The man who rescues the abandoned Perdita is called Shep, in reference to the shepherd who adopts Perdita in the play. This light touch works well, especially with the more unfathomable Shakespearian plot points such as Hermione’s sudden reappearance. The blossoming romance between Perdita and Zel is handled with tenderness that contrasts well with their warring elders.
There is no doubt that familiarity with the play will enhance enjoyment of the novel but the book stands as a droll piece in its own right, too. As a method of enticing readers to pick up Shakespeare’s works or attend a play performance, it has every chance of succeeding.