Carla Rising is a novel written by West Virginia native, Topper Sherwood, about the period in American history known as the West Virginia Mine Wars, specifically, the Battle of Blair of Mountain in 1921, during which thousands of armed miners attempted to march on the town of Logan to free their union brothers who had been jailed without charges. The battle ended only when the U.S. Army was sent in to restore order.
Sherwood has fictionalized the event, renaming some places and not others, and assembling a cast of characters some of whom can be fairly easily correlated to the historical figures they stand in for. The book is named for a central character, Carla Rising Mandt, raised on Blair Mountain by parents, Bonner Rising, a miner who had died in an earlier labor battle, and her mother, Mary, a quintessentially strong Appalachian woman who quietly endures the hardships of an idyllic rural life trying, but failing to avoid the dangerous politics of the era. Carla has been married for a year to Sid Mandt, a miner and local union leader as the book begins.
Sherwood, a journalist and small press publisher now living in Berlin, Germany, has long been interested in this period of West Virginia History, having co-authored the history, Just Good Politics, the Life of Raymond Chafin, Appalachian Boss. Sherwood displays virtuosic skill as he paints a rich picture of life in the southern WV coal fields in the early 1900’s. He brings to the page many of the images John Sayles fans will recognize from his 1987 independent film classic, Matewan, which covers some of the same ground, but focusses on the “Matewan Massacre,” which took place a year before the events portrayed in Sherwood’s novel.
Carla Rising explores the minds of two brothers, Todd and Gibbs Bryant, who vie for leadership of the striking miners, one advocating patience and one armed action. Having grown up roaming Blair mountain, Carla’s knowledge of the terrain is valuable to the striking miners, and she struggles to decide which of the two brothers to support.
Along with a host of authentically drawn characters, some born and raised in the mountains, others newly arrived European immigrants: Aunt Tildy and Uncle Harm, Lowcoal, Darko, the evil Baldwin guard, Gaujot, and Carla’s eleven year old brother, Nick, a mute innocent collecting trinkets to display in his secret cave, Todd, Gibbs, and Carla each find their way to important life lessons amidst their struggle to make a better life for the miners and their families in this period of exploitation and corruption in the Appalachian Mountains.
Sherwood’s Carla Rising is an important book because it brings us into the minds of people who struggle against seemingly impossible odds to take on local and state government leaders who are fully beholden to their corporate sponsors. Of course, there are no political leaders such as this in the United States today, right?