Reviewed by Brittany Taylor
The 2005 explosion at China’s Sunjiawan colliery killed 203 miners and injured nearly two dozen others. But it isn’t with the image of those trapped in the fatal shafts that poet and labor activist Mark Nowak opens his latest book. A woman, widowed at 40, is the first character sketched in Coal Mountain Elementary. She waits calmly in a room just 50 meters away from the mouth of the mine that swallowed her husband. She knew this day would come.
Though snapshots of the men—and, rarely, the women—who disappear in the mines are present and eventually overtake the story, Nowak’s opening focuses on the coal patch communities of families and friends that anxiously await the return of their men at shifts’ end, soot-covered but alive. Reflected and refracted continually, the image of the grieving widow, whether standing silent or ceremonially burning her missing husband’s possessions in fury, inserts the reader into a somber reality. As the pages turn and more lives are discovered lost, we, like the widow, know what is coming when news of yet another explosion is relayed. And we, like the widow, can only wish that there had been more time.
Coal Mountain Elementary isn’t the story of Pennsylvania or Wyoming. The focus is global, with news reports spanning the recent accident-ridden history of China’s coal industry and eyewitness accounts from the survivors of the Sago, WV, mine explosion—perhaps the most poignant tales to be found. The split focus on the two political giants of the modern world, the United States and China, highlights the enormity of the global problem of coal mining, making the reader wonder how, in the most developed country and the most quickly developing country in the world, we can allow such travesties to happen again and again to families that cannot otherwise support themselves.
Nowak emphasizes the absolute financial dependence of communities upon coal mines, many operated illegally in China. “They know the danger,” a newspaper article reports, “but still want to be coal miners because they cannot make a living on the land.” Many of the Chinese miners are illiterate peasants who receive little training, we are told. Often, they are taken into the mine the day they are recruited. While reading the excerpts from newspapers, we suddenly comprehend the push for the next generation of Chinese children to achieve higher education in order to escape the lifestyles of their forefathers. A 17-year-old girl who lost her father in a 2001 mine tragedy now fervently studies for her college entrance examinations. “My dad didn’t live a single day of a happy life,” she says, “but I will try hard to earn a happy life for my mother.” Another family has fallen to the same pressures. The father made 400 yuan a month as a security guard—not enough to send his daughter to secondary school, his wife said. As a miner, he could earn 1,000 yuan a month. “Otherwise, who would take such a job?” the woman’s sister said. “It is a job for living people working in hell.” Since undergoing this occupation change, he has been sacrificed to the pits of Sunjiawan.
Treading through woeful and desperate subject matter, Coal Mountain Elementary flows with the suspense of a narrative, each section of prose offering different pieces of information and points of view. We delve through alternating Chinese news reports and American eyewitness accounts, which make up the meat of the text. The framework of the book, however, is lessons derived from the title, a poetically divided series of activities taken from the American Coal Foundation’s curriculum for schoolchildren. By using the curriculum as a framework for the book’s three sections, Nowak transforms us into students, allowing us to learn and grow, to follow along with the students’ texts and come to our own conclusions, as children do, rather than to take on the more apathetic response shared by many adults.
The lesson plan framework also establishes rhythmic repetition, the omnipresent echo of Nowak’s exposé-like intent, notably in the second section, which urges us to consider the “costs associated with coal mining” as we take in the lifeless body of a Mr. Helm at Sago, found feet-first. As a poetic device, the lesson plans underline the images and messages Nowak expresses through the arrangement of articles and accounts. But as poetry, they are not as effective, primarily because of the dull, often technical language in which they were originally composed. The line breaks offer little additional meaning, and while emphasis can and is instilled frequently through enjambment, such emphasis is evident in the context of the news reports and eyewitness accounts.
The juxtaposition of the curriculum activities with these reports and accounts creates a dual sense of an overarching course of action and a profound sense of the unknown. Curriculum discussion questions—“What do you know about crystals? Where have you seen them?”—are bookended by an account of the loss of all communication to the mines at Sago and an article reporting that no one knows whether the 51 men trapped by the underground blast at a Chenge coal mine are alive or not. A continuation of the coal flower experiment’s procedure tempers a harried, confused account from Sago on the facing page:
Well, I do remember the dispatcher saying we had an explosion. He repeated that out loud to himself and his face—his facial expression, he was real nervous and he was trying to figure out what was going on, what we needed to do and who we needed to call and—.
The longest excerpt in Coal Mountain Elementary is an account of a man’s frantic attempts to follow procedure and alert the authorities. He calls number after number, enlisting the assistance of his wife to find outdated contacts. No one answers. Phones are disconnected, answering machines are turned off. The man waits as ring after ring falls upon absent ears. Incompetence becomes Nowak’s buzzword, trotted out when quoted excerpts recount the numerous incidents in which help arrived too late. Paired with this is the assessment section of the first lesson, urging documentation: “Either photograph / the crystals / or have the students / draw them and explain / in their own words / how they made / the flowers. / They should describe / the process / as well as the changes / they noticed over time.” The contrast between the chaotic reality of the timeline of events at Sago and that of the experiment, so measured and neatly ordered, is stark and astounding.
Nowak’s triumph here in creating the affecting and distinct Coal Mountain Elementary is almost exclusively that of the designer. The photography is the only original work present in the book, and Nowak’s own photographs seem lackluster when compared to the vividness of photojournalist Ian Teh’s stills captured in Chinese collieries. The articles quoted are from China Daily, South China Morning Post, and other national papers, and the Sago accounts are verbatim excerpts taken from the over 6,300 pages of transcripts. The material does become repetitive, particularly where the news reports are concerned, as they become more of a tally of accidents and deaths, pulling back from the more individualized focus of the earlier excerpts. But this occurs in tandem with the increase of narrative in the Sago accounts, which hone in on the rescue of one man, Mr. McCloy, told from the perspectives of numerous fellow miners. This trade-off is understandable and well-planned, though the Chinese reports become tiresome as suspense builds at Sago. One of the book’s few flaws is this excess of information and emphasis.
As a labor activist, Nowak’s intentions are clear. He seeks to educate, as the title and framework suggests, but beyond that, he seeks change for these communities for which mining is the only way of life. By weaving a book that focuses not on one individual—the miner, or the widow, alone—but rather on the community—the lost miner, his grieving family, his church, and his comrades—Nowak shouts that this is not an individual’s problem. By using material from the East and the West, he points to the fact that this is an international tragedy that occurs with horrific frequency. It is not isolated and it is not a phenomenon. Though one widow says she has no language for her feelings, that “there’s no way anybody else can understand it,” to the outsider, Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary is a lesson that imparts the somber, shocking reality of coal country.