Novel of hard times offers a promise of a better future

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 22, 2013 

Lest we forget that hard times have befallen generations before us and storm clouds have darkened other horizons, Portland author Susan Hill Long has written "Whistle in the Dark," a thoughtful new novel that, while it is aimed at youths 8 to 12, will resonate for older readers, too.

This is the coming-of-age story of Clem Harding, who on his 13th birthday is going to trade in his schoolbooks for a hard hat and join his pap down in the lead mines of southeast Missouri.

The year is 1925, and hard times have already hit the Ozarks in general and Clem's family in particular. His ma was widowed shortly after she became pregnant with him and his pap is actually his stepdad and uncle; Clem's little sister Etty has epileptic seizures; and his Grampy, disabled with miner's consumption after a lifetime of working in the mines, lives with them, too.

All of Clem's dreams seem to be shriveling up and dying - his wish to continue his education, his hope of having his own dog, his yearning for less hardship for his family.

But others in their hardscrabble town have it even worse - the scar-faced girl whose father runs the moonshine operation out in the woods, for instance - and Clem knows he must do his part.

When a stray dog shows up at their house, Clem knows it is futile to ask to keep it. But as it turns out, the dog has an unusual skill that the family needs, and on top of that, Pap owes Clem a favor (of sorts) - so the dog gets to stay.

That is one of the few bright spots in Clem's life - from the first day, he hates working down in the suffocating darkness of the mines.

He wishes he could figure out a different way to make money for his family - and one day he even fakes sickness to get out of the mine early and try selling moonshine. This is something that his pap has strictly forbidden, so it seems almost fated that when Clem gets home from his furtive endeavor that day, he is hit with terrible news.

That calamity is soon followed by a mining accident that injures his father and then a natural disaster devastates the town.

Determined to keep his family going, Clem copes with the hard times by developing new qualities within himself and by learning to appreciate the strengths of others, even while acknowledging their weaknesses.

Author Long incorporates some real-life events into the tale - the mining town of Leadanna actually existed, and the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925 did cut through several impoverished mining towns in the area. She captures the time and place in wonderful detail, from the hill-folk superstitions to the smell of the mines.

And although the characters are fictional, they feel authentic. Clem in particular, but also the family and friends who surround him, reflect the grit, the work ethic, and the capacity for change that are the backbone of America.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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