Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Review: Coal River by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Advanced review copy from publisher via NetGalley. My opinions are my own.

Release Date: December 29, 2015

Emma Malloy loved growing up in New York City, but after a fire breaks out at the theater where her artist parents worked as set designers, she is left orphaned at age nineteen. She has no choice but to return to the small coal mining town of Coal River, Pennsylvania (a fictional town somewhere near Wilkes-Barre) to live with her self-righteous aunt and uncle. It's a place where the wealthy are corrupt and the miners are on the brink of a strike in protest of the unfair wages and working conditions they are forced to live with.

Despite the historically interesting and moving subject matter, there was too much of this which felt unrealistic.

The dialogue felt forced at times, with there being way too much "telling" and not enough "showing" through both the dialogue and narrative. It's frustrating to watch Emma says things which will only make her situation worse, and doesn't benefit anyone or change anything. She asks stupid questions like, "don't you worry about your child working in the breaker?" Of course they do! It's like everything needs to be spelled out for Emma, because the author thinks the reader needs it spelled out.

The saint-like Emma could be a little hypocritical by criticizing her aunt for trying to avoid thinking about the horrors the coal miners and their families faced, but then Emma herself would sometimes look away from the destitute on the streets as she went passed, or ask why someone was "torturing" her by telling her all the gory details of the accidents that happened in the mines. Why is it okay for Emma to not want to hear about it, but her aunt is a bad person for not wanting to hear about it?

Then there was the usage of the old, "That's impossible! There was a little girl who lived here, but she died like 30 years ago" trope. Okay, it wasn't exactly that (kudos to those who got the Friends reference though), which is why this isn't a spoiler, but there is a very similar scene with the same cliche concept, which unlike in Friends was supposed to be real, not a prank. It just felt hokey and unoriginal.

It was a quick and easy read, so despite all this, it wasn't a chore to read. However, given the subject matter, this could have been a very powerful novel, and I felt it was let down by these fundamental flaws in the characterization and dialogue.

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