The best books on coal mining

6 authors have picked their favorite books about coal mining and why they recommend each book.

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The Shadow of the Mine

By Huw Beynon, Ray Hudson,

Book cover of The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain

Powerful class identities were formed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a range of industrial countries. In the motherland of the industrial revolution, in Britain, those constructions of class were particularly strong among particular occupations. Miners were often seen as the vanguard of class-conscious proletarians the closely-knit mining communities in different parts of the UK seemed to many observers to represent an alternative solidaristic society in the making. This book traces the ruthless destruction of these mining communities in Britain by the neoliberal governments of Margaret Thatcher and is in many respects a tribute to these communities and their values.


Who am I?

I've been working on questions of identity and history for more than thirty years. It's a very personal topic for me, as I come from a working-class background – something that I was acutely aware of throughout my school and university education, where people of my background were comparatively rare. History in my view has the power to construct essentialist identities that exclude and are potentially deadly. But history also has the power to critically question this essentialism and contribute to a more tolerant, open-minded, and self-reflective society. Hence, as a historian, I've been trying to support and strengthen an engaged and enlightened historiography that bolsters a range of progressive identifications without leading to essentialist constructions of collective identities.


I wrote...

History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice

By Stefan Berger,

Book cover of History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice

What is my book about?

History-writing is often related to the formation of collective identities. Historians write the history of nations which answers questions about how those who think of themselves as belonging to a nation, developed over time. History has been, for many centuries, meaningful in the construction of collective identities.

This volume reflects on the ways in which professional historians have, since the 1980s become more self-reflective about their role in providing identities and identifications, and it analyzes the different ways in which they have attempted to stay clear of essentialisms. How did they manage to introduce more self-reflectivity and critical potential into their handling of identitarian questions in historical writing? The volume looks at a range of different histories, political, social, economic, cultural, the history of concepts, visual histories, material culture histories, historical anthropology, environmental history, big history, and global history to demonstrate, how across a range of different sub-disciplines we can speak of a self-reflective turn of historical studies in relation to collective identities.

Town Is by the Sea

By Joanne Schwartz, Sydney Smith (illustrator),

Book cover of Town Is by the Sea

This is a picture book, but not for very young children. The quiet, almost understated text and art add to the power of the story: a small boy’s experience of coal mining in Nova Scotia in the 1950s. (Though it wasn’t written till 2017). Reading it as an adult, and despite having lived in Nova Scotia as a teenager, I was completely rocked and almost disorientated as I began to grasp the reality of it. I’m not sure which aspect I found more disturbing – imagining the men in the long dark tunnels under the sea, or the boy’s complete acceptance that he would follow this way of life in his turn.  


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and when I dreamed of being an author, imagined I’d write historical fiction. However, it took many writing detours to arrive there. (Nim’s Island, by the way, has no basis in historical fact!). When I first imagined the story that led to the Minoan Wings trilogy, I fell in love with researching this era, which is particularly intriguing because there are virtually no written records. Visiting the ruins of a four-thousand-year-old town on Crete under the guidance of an archaeologist who had not only excavated there but had become passionately involved with my imaginary characters, was an absolute highlight of my life. 


I wrote...

Cuckoo's Flight

By Wendy Orr,

Book cover of Cuckoo's Flight

What is my book about?

If Clio had stayed to load the kiln as she should have, she’d never have seen the ship. But she saw it, and the world changed. Now the oracle is demanding the greatest sacrifice: a young maiden to serve the goddess – and Clio’s grandmother creates a sacred statue to save Clio’s life.

But Clio is torn between the demands of guarding the statue and caring for her beloved horses. Disabled in an accident, she must try to put aside her own grief at no longer being able to ride – and in the process, save a friend’s life and stop a war. 

The Stars Look Down

By A.J. Cronin,

Book cover of The Stars Look Down

The book describes various injustices in a coal mining community and gives an excellent description of working-class life of the time in the North of England.

The story portrays the different careers or paths of individuals against the odds: a miner's son who tries to defend his people from political pressure, a miner who turns into a businessman, and the mine owner's son in a clash with his overbearing father. Having had similar experiences in my own life, the story had jogged my memory.


Who am I?

I felt compelled to write this story, not just because the eventful lives of myself and members of my family, but mostly because of its historical content. Until this day the West knows very little of what actually happened in the early 1940s and after 1945 to countries and people who, after the war, finished up behind the Iron Curtain. From Fascism to Communism, they had fallen “Out of the frying pan into the fire.” People in those European countries, who had lived through and experienced those events, are now very thin on the ground.


I wrote...

Retrospect

By Tom Tottis,

Book cover of Retrospect

What is my book about?

In the aftermath of the First World War, Julia, a young woman in Budapest, is working hard to contribute to the family’s income. Julia marries Sándor and despite being told by her doctor that she must not have children, she has a son, Tommy. The turbulent years of WWII reduce the family to just mother and son and Julia and Tommy are forced to draw upon their determination, courage, wit, and self-preservation to survive. In the wake of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, crushed by Soviet tanks, Tommy risks his life and escapes from behind the Iron Curtain and from the Communism that has risen from the ashes of Fascism.

From Budapest in the ‘twenties to London in the ‘nineties, this is a family saga of three generations, ravaged by wars and adverse circumstances.

Strange as This Weather Has Been

By Ann Pancake,

Book cover of Strange as This Weather Has Been

This is the novel I can only wish I had written. Pancake’s expansive story of a family in a desperate struggle to save their homes and hollows from the ravages of mountaintop removal mining gives voice to modern-day Appalachians in the same way The Grapes of Wrath spoke for the displaced farmers of the Dustbowl era. (As one who loves Steinbeck’s epic, I don’t make this connection lightly!) Another heartrending masterwork that I couldn’t stop thinking about as I read this book is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible because of its centering on motherhood, its similar structure, and its ability to pull the reader into the lives of the characters. This is storytelling at its best. I couldn’t put it down. 


Who am I?

I live in the southern Appalachians, a place that boasts some of the most beautiful views on earth and laments some of the most ravaged landscapes. As a fiction writer who is passionate about nature and human rights, I’ve taken up my pen to craft a novel with regular people at its heart, all living regular lives that are disrupted by tragedies all too common to the region. This is the general throughline in the books I am recommending, although the themes differ. I’ve offered a variety of genres, as well, which best reflects my own bookshelf at my home in the hills. 


I wrote...

In Circling Flight

By Jane Harrington,

Book cover of In Circling Flight

What is my book about?

In this contemporary novel set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southern Appalachia, the lives of two young women are knit together when one is left alone on a farm after the sudden loss of her partner and the other is displaced by mountaintop removal coal mining. An embedded historical plot line follows the exodus of ancestors from Ireland during the Great Hunger to their settling in the Blue Ridge, a tale of oppression and migration that mirrors the current circumstances. In Circling Flight is as much a story of love and loss of the human kind as it is a treatise to the elemental relationship between people and their land.

Germinal

By Emile Zola, Peter Collier (translator),

Book cover of Germinal

No glitter here. Though Germinal takes place in the 186os, it was written in 1884, and Gilded Age sensibilities haunt this tale of the crushing lives of French coal miners whose labor, hardships, and deaths fuel the excesses of Gilded Age lives. Zola’s masterpiece, with several movie adaptations to choose from.

Who am I?

I write historical fiction based on the lives of my ancestors: Agnes Canon’s War is the story of my twice-great grandparents during the Civil War. An Irish Wife is based on their son. I write about the Gilded Age, which is only now drawing the attention of historical novelists and the wider public: the vast wealth of industrialists contrasted to the poverty of the lower classes, scandalous politics, environmental degradation, fear of and prejudices about immigrants. My ancestors lived through those days; I want to imagine how that tumultuous society affected them, how they managed, what they lost and gained, and to memorialize those stories as a way to honor them.


I wrote...

An Irish Wife

By Deborah Lincoln,

Book cover of An Irish Wife

What is my book about?

In the brilliant society of 1880s America, King Coal fuels fortunes and drives prosperity for the privileged—and destroys the dreams and the lives of the unfortunate. Harry Robinson is the hope of his family for the next generation, expected to ride Gilded-Age momentum to the American Dream. When Harry meets Niamh, an Irish Catholic wife of a miner, he begins to understand the extent of the prejudices that stalk local immigrants. As he undertakes the job of tutoring her younger brother, he finds himself falling in love for the first time. When Niamh shows up one day bloodied and bruised, Harry is determined to take her away, despite her religious scruples and the disapproval of his family. But Niamh and her brother disappear.  

Sons And Lovers

By D.H. Lawrence, Taylor Anderson (editor),

Book cover of Sons And Lovers

Another book that features sons. Lawrence’s father was a Nottinghamshire coal miner and there are many little details in the book that attest to the author’s knowledge of nineteenth-century mining family life. I’ve chosen Sons and Lovers because, to me, it asks an unanswerable question and so the tale has stayed in my mind. Did Lawrence despise his own father as much as fictional Paul, influenced by Paul’s mother, despises Walter Morel? I’d love to know. I sympathised with Gertrude, the wife and mother, but I felt so sorry for Walter. He worked hard in a terrible job. He became old and tired before his time. Yes, he was uncouth and illiterate, but I felt he deserved some praise, not contempt.


Who am I?

I write fictional, contemporary gay mysteries, but I prefer to read facts and I enjoy the research that accompanies my storytelling. Industrial history and geology fascinate me, so it isn’t any wonder that I set my tales in the Durham hills of northeast England. As some of my videos in the link show, there are many abandoned quarries, lead and coal mines in the area. I can become emotional when I think about the socio-political history of mining and quarrying. My latest tale reflects my interest in quarrying and my five recommendations reflect a passion that has its roots in the UK’s once thriving, now defunct, coal industry.


I wrote...

The Refuge Bid

By Jude Tresswell,

Book cover of The Refuge Bid

What is my book about?

The Refuge Bid is a gay mystery and relationships tale set in fictional Tunhead, northeast England. Is there a link between a woman who has been missing for ten years and the people bidding to buy and redevelop Tunhead’s decommissioned church and graveyard? Can the County Durham Quad and their special friend, Nick, find out and stop the sale—one grave is special—and can they raise the cash to counter the bids with an offer of their own? Success involves their drawing on Tunhead’s industrial history and on employing their different skills but, also, they must each acknowledge what they really want from their unusual liaison.

(Note: explores asexual/ sexual relationships and contains references to teenage suicide and conversion therapy.)

Kyland (Sign of Love)

By Mia Sheridan,

Book cover of Kyland (Sign of Love)

This book made me smile, ugly cry, laugh, feel upset, feel hopeful and it gave me goosebumps. I loved everything that it made me feel. The hero made an enormous sacrifice for the heroine without telling her. Misunderstandings and this secret ultimately placed them on separate paths, but when fate places them in the same place years later, it's magic. It is a story about second chances, about the flame of true love never going out, and about facing one’s biggest fear and facing it daily for the person you love.


Who am I?

Seeing couples that are still in love after being with one another for 50+ years has always warmed my heart. Seeing my grandparents hold one another’s hands and look at each other with love always made me hopeful to find such a love. I have not been blessed to have that kind of love in my life (yet) but that does not stop me from looking for it and finding it in books. The characters in my favorite books are ones I identify with on some level. They are loyal, do not give up and they love wholeheartedly, even if they make some missteps along the way, the end destination always ends up being deeply in love. And I love cheering on characters when they deal with everyday issues and roadblocks on this journey of love. 


I wrote...

The Truth About Adira

By Anna Paulsen,

Book cover of The Truth About Adira

What is my book about?

The Truth About Adira is a story about second chances as well as a story of finding a type of love that shines a light into places that were once encompassed by utter darkness. This type of light is a guiding beacon that warms a heart that has learned to protect itself by isolating itself.

The Truth About Adira takes you on a journey of exploring the past while building a solid foundation in the present for the future. 

Billy Elliot

By Melvin Burgess,

Book cover of Billy Elliot

Billy Elliott is a miner’s son who wants to be a ballet dancer. This is an adaptation of Lee Hall’s original screenplay and, to me, lacks the feel of a novel, but I’ve chosen it for three reasons. It’s set in County Durham. It challenges traditional, macho values. It’s as good a description as anything I’ve read that describes aspects of the UK miners’ strikes of the 1980s. When Jackie, Billy’s dad, says, "There’s coal behind everything in this country. It’s still down there. We’re not,” you can sense the anger, hurt, and bitterness—and, forty years later, just like the coal, those feelings remain.


Who am I?

I write fictional, contemporary gay mysteries, but I prefer to read facts and I enjoy the research that accompanies my storytelling. Industrial history and geology fascinate me, so it isn’t any wonder that I set my tales in the Durham hills of northeast England. As some of my videos in the link show, there are many abandoned quarries, lead and coal mines in the area. I can become emotional when I think about the socio-political history of mining and quarrying. My latest tale reflects my interest in quarrying and my five recommendations reflect a passion that has its roots in the UK’s once thriving, now defunct, coal industry.


I wrote...

The Refuge Bid

By Jude Tresswell,

Book cover of The Refuge Bid

What is my book about?

The Refuge Bid is a gay mystery and relationships tale set in fictional Tunhead, northeast England. Is there a link between a woman who has been missing for ten years and the people bidding to buy and redevelop Tunhead’s decommissioned church and graveyard? Can the County Durham Quad and their special friend, Nick, find out and stop the sale—one grave is special—and can they raise the cash to counter the bids with an offer of their own? Success involves their drawing on Tunhead’s industrial history and on employing their different skills but, also, they must each acknowledge what they really want from their unusual liaison.

(Note: explores asexual/ sexual relationships and contains references to teenage suicide and conversion therapy.)

How Green Was My Valley

By Richard Llewellyn,

Book cover of How Green Was My Valley

Another book that features striking miners but, this time, set in Victorian Wales. It’s more fiction than autobiography, but I do believe in its portrayal of a family trying to deal with the change from Victorian values to more modern ones. The father clings to his belief in traditional forms of authority and in the power of prayer. The sons believe in unions and fighting for what they feel are workers’ rights. There’s more to How Green Was My Valley than that, but I felt I learnt something. It hadn’t occurred to me that the growth of unions could be so divisive within families. In fact, until I read the book, I knew very little about union development. It came at a price.


Who am I?

I write fictional, contemporary gay mysteries, but I prefer to read facts and I enjoy the research that accompanies my storytelling. Industrial history and geology fascinate me, so it isn’t any wonder that I set my tales in the Durham hills of northeast England. As some of my videos in the link show, there are many abandoned quarries, lead and coal mines in the area. I can become emotional when I think about the socio-political history of mining and quarrying. My latest tale reflects my interest in quarrying and my five recommendations reflect a passion that has its roots in the UK’s once thriving, now defunct, coal industry.


I wrote...

The Refuge Bid

By Jude Tresswell,

Book cover of The Refuge Bid

What is my book about?

The Refuge Bid is a gay mystery and relationships tale set in fictional Tunhead, northeast England. Is there a link between a woman who has been missing for ten years and the people bidding to buy and redevelop Tunhead’s decommissioned church and graveyard? Can the County Durham Quad and their special friend, Nick, find out and stop the sale—one grave is special—and can they raise the cash to counter the bids with an offer of their own? Success involves their drawing on Tunhead’s industrial history and on employing their different skills but, also, they must each acknowledge what they really want from their unusual liaison.

(Note: explores asexual/ sexual relationships and contains references to teenage suicide and conversion therapy.)

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