Heeding the Call
204 pages, 6 x 9
Release Date:09 Mar 2020
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Heeding the Call

A Study of Denise Giardina's Novels

West Virginia University Press
In Heeding the Call, William Jolliff offers the first book-length discussion of West Virginia writer and activist Denise Giardina, perhaps best known for her novel Storming Heaven, which helped spark renewed interest in the turn-of-the-century Mine Wars. Jolliff proposes that Giardina’s fiction be considered under three thematic complexes: regional, political, and theological. Though addressing all three, Heeding the Call foregrounds the theological because it is the least accessible to most readers and critics.
In chapters devoted to each of Giardina’s novels, Jolliff attends to her uses of history, her formal techniques, and the central themes that make each work significant. What becomes clear is that while the author’s religious beliefs inform her fiction, she never offers easy answers. Her narratives consistently push her characters—and her readers—into more challenging and meaningful questions. Jolliff concludes by arguing that although Giardina’s initial fame has been tied to her significance as an Appalachian novelist, future studies must look beyond the regional to the deeply human questions her novels so persistently engage.
 ‘A needed book. Heeding the Call offers acute commentary on all of Giardina’s novels and ties them together with overarching themes. Educators, students, scholars, and readers alike will find it useful.’
Theresa L. Burriss, director of the Appalachian Regional and Rural Studies Center, Radford University
William Jolliff is a professor of English at George Fox University. He is the editor of The Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier and author of Twisted Shapes of Light, a collection of poetry.
Chapter 1
Called to Mystery: Place, Politics, and a Life of Faith
No contemporary writer has lived a life more closely woven into the complex fabric of West Virginia.
Denise Giardina was born into a mining family whose heritage suggests the many and varied cultural threads of Appalachia. Her paternal grandfather, Sam Giardina, was a Sicilian immigrant who landed in West Virginia searching for economic opportunity, hoping to make a quick fortune and return to Italy. Though he made no fortune, he did find work in the coal mines, married Sara Peduzzi (another Sicilian immigrant), and had five children. But he longed for home. So he moved his wife and family back to Sicily when Denise’s father, Dennis, was still a toddler. Times remained difficult there too, however, and Sam could not make a living on the family farm. After eight years of trying, desperate for work, the family returned to settle in McDowell County.[i]
Giardina’s maternal forbears were Appalachian natives with deep roots in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Some had followed the migration through the Appalachians after the Revolutionary War. Others came a half-century later: Quakers fleeing North Carolina during the Civil War, they were seeking freedom to live out their beliefs in a place with abolitionist sympathies. Once in Kentucky they assimilated into the local culture and customs, carving out a life of comfortable self-sufficiency.[ii] They logged, farmed, taught school, and made a little liquor; and in time, their lives would inevitably intersect with the coal industry. Giardina’s mother, Leona, was born into the fortunes of this large family in the community of Grapevine in Pike County.[iii]
So Appalachian culture runs deep in the novelist’s blood, and part of that culture is coal. Her grandfather Sam was an underground miner, and one of his sons joined him in the mines. The fate of Giardina’s father took a different turn.[iv] Through the beneficence of one of his schoolteachers, he was given the chance to leave home and earn a two-year degree in business. With that completed, he returned to the coalfields and became a bookkeeper and later a personnel manager at Page Coal and Coke. On her mother’s side, her grandfather worked for a time as a manager at a company store and as a mine guard, among other jobs.[v] One of his sons became a miner and another a mining engineer. Giardina’s mother had the opportunity to earn a nursing degree and practiced in several capacities.[vi] When the children were small, she worked the night shift in a local hospital so that she could care for Denise and her brother during the day. Eventually she took a job with the Public Health Department and worked as a school nurse.
That Giardina’s family came from both native and more recent immigrant stock, and that the two lineages would come together in the coalfields, is a good representation of the nature of Appalachian mining culture. Reflecting on the diversity of her childhood, Giardina notes that in McDowell County “there were probably people from a hundred nationalities. So I was always conscious that this thing we call Appalachia is much more complex than was being presented. And yet these were all mountain people; they were all Appalachian.”[vii]
Her parents’ professions gave the Giardina household some financial advantage over most of their fellow residents in the ten-house coal camp of Black Wolf. Though not affluent by contemporary middle-class standards, in their context they were more comfortable than most of their neighbors. They lived in a standard four-room, company-owned house, but a fifth room was added on; and they were not bound to worry about the next meal like many of their friends and kin who worked underground. Even as a child, Giardina was aware of this slight privilege: “We were just really lucky,” she notes, “and I was always a little guilty about that.”[viii] But she was also aware that their daily life was far from that of the coal company executives, like the superintendent whose big house sat up on the hill. She learned early of class distinctions and of the tenuous existence of mining families.
Though coal camp life was hard, even poor, Black Wolf proved to be a rich place for a writer to grow up. Giardina’s first thirteen years would provide the tenor and details of her eventual portrayals of life in mining country: the threads that ran through the company town, the textures that would later weave their way through the coal camp communities of her novels, were lasting and strong. Giardina remembers Black Wolf as a place where “people’s lives in all their quirky variety were lived in full view of their neighbors, where stark good and evil showed their face with some frequency, and at the same time moral ambiguity could be readily noticeable even by a small child.”[ix] It was a childhood that instilled good and bad memories, many of them related to the mines. She recalls her uncle, like thousands of other miners, dying of black lung, “literally drowning in his hospital bed.”[x] Her next-door neighbor was crushed to death in a mining machine. Another neighbor was a sometimes violent alcoholic, self-medicating for the chronic back pain caused by a mining injury. Many of her schoolmates lost their fathers in the mines.[xi]
Yet Black Wolf was also a place where an imaginative little girl could listen to wonderful stories “while perched upon the bony knees of old men”; or she could idle on her neighbor’s porch, listening to the frogs and watching lightning bugs, hearing that same alcoholic spin the traditional tales of the booger man.[xii] It was a place where children could run out-of-doors, play with their critters, and ramble among the hills and along the creek. But it was also a place where parents warned them not to wade into the creek: the water was toxic, poisoned by the chemicals seeping from mining refuse piles.[xiii] For good and for ill, these were her people, and this was her place, and Giardina writes affectionately of life in a company town: “No matter where or when,” she noted in an interview with Thomas Douglass, “if you grew up in a coal camp, people looked after each other; you usually had close friends that you could trust; there was a sense of community. But,” she added, “there was absolutely no freedom. . . . You can’t measure human dignity without freedom.[xiv] That statement suggests an ethical tension that persists in one form or another throughout Giardina’s work, a social consciousness that drives her novels regardless of the particular setting. The seed of her sensitivity was planted early. She remembers her classmates with their blackened teeth, the result of poor nutrition and dental care. She remembers, as a fourth grader, seeing the younger children at school wearing her hand-me-down clothes.[xv] She even remembers arguing with her father, whose job included working on behalf of his company to keep miners from compensation to which they were entitled.[xvi]
Along with her sense of community, her sense of justice, and the sense that her community was being denied something essential, Giardina’s literary sensibilities were also developing in Black Wolf. Her Methodist upbringing made the Bible her “basic literary influence,”[xvii] and its language pervades her work. Significantly too, as an eighth grader she discovered Shakespeare, to whom she refers as “my first love.”[xviii] That was her beginning in McDowell County. But coal mining has never been a stable industry, and there were hard times in the 1960s. When Giardina was thirteen, the camp at Black Wolf closed and her father lost his position. His next job moved the family a hundred miles north.[xix] The family’s new home was in Kanawha County, near Malden, now part of the Charleston metropolitan area. As might be expected, Giardina was a good student. She read avidly and even had premonitions of becoming a writer, though for her that exotic profession seemed far outside the realm of possibility. Still, she remembers, as a part of an eighth-grade writing assignment, crafting a sentence praised by her teacher—a sentence that later appeared in revised form in Good King Harry.[xx] Even more prophetically, she recalls in high school reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm and after that “a lot of Orwell.”[xxi] It is telling that already as a high school student, she was drawn to a novelist who is politically weighty and broadly accessible, traits that would come to characterize Giardina’s own work.
After graduating from DuPont High School as a National Merit Scholar finalist, Giardina attended West Virginia Wesleyan College, her attendance made possible in part by a scholarship from the United Methodist Church. But hers was not the typical academic training for a novelist—she studied history and political science. “In college,” she notes, “I hardly read fiction. I didn’t take a lot of literature classes. I took a class in Shakespeare, but I was reading mostly history, books about the Russian Revolution and Trotsky, and books by John Stuart Mill and Hegel. Most of them I disagreed with, Rousseau and Locke for instance, but the ideas were interesting to me.”[xxii]
By the end of her undergraduate experience, Giardina had also transitioned from the Methodism of her childhood to the Episcopal Church.[xxiii] During a semester of studying abroad in England, she became more interested in the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and discovered that he always considered himself an Anglican.[xxiv] And even more importantly, she fell in love with the liturgy and theology of the Anglican Church. So once home, she started to worship in a nearby Episcopal congregation.
She had thoughts of attending law school and even took the Law School Admission Test during her senior year, but realized “there was no way I wanted to spend three years studying that stuff.”[xxv] After a variety of clerical jobs her first three years after graduation, she did choose graduate school, but not to study law. Through attending the Episcopal Church, she gained a friend and mentor in the Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal priest whom she places alongside her mother as one of the two most important people in her life.”[xxvi] In part due to his influence, she decided to attend Virginia Theological Seminary, sensing a call toward ordination. She was in fact ordained in 1979 but would later realize that writing was her primary life’s work, her true vocation, and that her theological education had trained her to consider the important questions that would become the stuff of her fiction.[xxvii]
During her final year at seminary, Giardina lived off campus in Washington, DC, with a group of radical young Christians.[xxviii] This group, Sojourners Fellowship, would later become one of the more high-profile progressive Christian organizations, gaining considerable notoriety by publishing the magazine Sojourners. Giardina’s association with these politically engaged believers would prove to be important for her faith and for her political understanding. After seminary and a period of activism in Washington, she returned to serve in a church in southern West Virginia. There, however, she found that her engagement in social issues, particularly her criticism of the coal industry, was not welcome. Some parishioners complained to her superiors, and, according to Lewis, “The church double-crossed her. . . . The bishop didn’t give her the support he should have.”[xxix] From there she moved back to Washington, where she worked on a peace campaign and lived once again as part of the Sojourners Fellowship. Concerning her time in that community, Giardina reflects, “We were kind of young and self-righteous, but we were really trying to live our faith.”[xxx] And Giardina was also living the life of the writer, drafting her first novel, Good King Harry, during lunch breaks from her job at the National Cathedral.[xxxi]
After this period in Washington and spending some time in rural West Virginia, Giardina worked at secretarial jobs in the Charleston offices of various Democratic politicians. It was then that she completed Good King Harry. Having already finished a draft of the book, she took a writing class with the poet and novelist George Garrett, who helped her place the novel with a publisher through an agent.[xxxii] With one major piece of historical fiction completed, she turned her attention to the coalfield novels for which she is best known. In fact, even while writing Good King Harry she already had the idea simmering for her second novel, Storming Heaven. She suspected, however, that a book set in the West Virginia coalfields might be hard to place with a publisher. Indeed, when she pitched the idea to the publishers of Good King Harry, her judgment proved to be correct: they weren’t interested.[xxxiii]
But that did not deter her from writing the novel. It speaks to Giardina’s commitment, to the authentic integration of her life and work, that after publishing a first novel she chose to immerse herself once again in a coal camp, this time David, Kentucky. As she explained it, “While writing Storming Heaven, I thought it would be beneficial to actually live in a coal camp again.”[xxxiv] During her time there, she worked with the activist group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, serving as its secretary-treasurer. The organization managed to get an amendment on the ballot to forbid coal companies from strip mining land they did not own, and their amendment passed with 80 percent of the vote. Giardina refers to that work as “one of the few examples where the people actually stood up to the coal companies. It was a very proud moment.”[xxxv] In maintaining her pattern of keeping at least two fires burning, one literary and one political, it was also during her time in David that she was formulating The Unquiet Earth.[xxxvi]
In 1988 Giardina left the coal camp to see more of the world, this time moving to Durham, North Carolina. In addition, she says that she “wanted to feel homesick.”[xxxvii] There she worked in a bookstore (“the best job I ever had”[xxxviii]) and also took a class at Duke University with Laurel Goldman. The course proved important in her completion of the third novel, and it gave her the confidence to believe she could teach writing.[xxxix] She enjoyed life in Durham, but after three years she felt like she needed to get closer to home again, believing it was there that she could make an impact. She moved to a writer-in-residence position at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky,[xl] then returned to Charleston to teach at West Virginia State College. “I started getting homesick,” she states, “and my parents were getting up in years. I felt I could make more of a difference here than in North Carolina.”[xli]
While the first twenty years of Giardina’s adult life may seem to have been somewhat unsettled, a closer consideration reveals that they were a focused interweaving of the continuous threads that are the writer’s life. Always, it seems, she was working on a novel, always investing time and energy in progressive causes, and always working out her love for Appalachia. She never lived more than a few hours away from West Virginia, and both in her fiction and her political work, her attention was on concerns relevant to her home state. As she confesses, “I’ve tried to live other places, but it never works out for very long.”[xlii] In many ways, her situation is typical of many West Virginia natives: dealing with displacement is as much a part of the identity as staying put. Perhaps it is an Appalachian characteristic always to long for home but always to be leaving and returning.
After moving back to Charleston and a position at West Virginia State College in 1991, Giardina finally began a long tenure of teaching and writing. With a third well-published novel on her résumé by 1992 and a place on faculty, one might think that this is when she would become a more typical academic novelist, teaching her courses and then retreating to the office to shut her door and write. But instead, she continued to maintain the public profile of an engaged intellectual. In other words, Giardina kept working hard at being a good citizen who does not mind getting blood on her knuckles. Her love for her home state led her to continue her political action work alongside other activists, and to write about the concerns of the state in high-profile newspapers and magazines. The political aspect of her life’s work reached its pinnacle when friends convinced her to run for governor in 2000.
Knowing that she would be overlooked as one more Democratic primary contender, she ran as the Mountain Party candidate. Her realistic purpose was not to get elected—a near- impossibility for any third-party candidate—but to gather public support to combat mountaintop removal, the method of mining she has termed “the environmental counterpoint to the Holocaust.”[xliii] Though a victory was out of the question, her campaign helped call state, national, and international attention to that most disastrous and irreversible of mining practices.[xliv] Her candidacy made the newspapers in this country and even abroad,[xlv] and at least a few people started talking about this destructive form of mining. She posed enough of a threat, in fact, that two officials from the Democratic Party, fearing she would draw votes from their candidate, offered her a seat in the legislature if she would quit her campaign, an exchange she recalls as particularly repulsive.[xlvi] Running for governor, overall, was not a good experience. Even for a longtime activist and lover of lost causes, it was disillusioning and draining, physically and emotionally. She did not enjoy public speaking before large crowds, and she did not like chatting at receptions. “Twice on statewide television I got to get up and talk for two minutes on mountaintop removal,” she told an interviewer. “A year and a half of work to get to speak for two minutes.”[xlvii]
Although she was burned out by the race and demoralized by the process, she has nevertheless maintained her engagement with the concerns of Appalachians, as any search on the internet will indicate. Throughout her twenty-one-year tenure at West Virginia State and since, she has continued as an opinion writer in both local and national newspapers, taking a prophetic stance on issues that concern Appalachia and particularly West Virginia. And her political engagement did not derail her literary work. During her time as a teaching professor, she published her three most recent novels, Saints and Villains (1998), Fallam’s Secret (2003), and Emily’s Ghost (2009). Retired from the university, she now lives in Charleston, where she continues to write and to remain engaged in political causes.
1. Called to Mystery: Place, Politics, and a Life of Faith
2. Good King Harry: The Formation and Paradox of a Christian King
3. Storming Heaven: Colonization and the Roots of Resistance
4. The Unquiet Earth: Confronting the Coalfield Apocalypse
5. Saints and Villains: Conscience, Doubt, and the Call to Action
6. Fallam’s Secret: One True Sermon
7. Emily’s Ghost: The Making of a Giardina Hero
8. Conclusion: Facing the Questions, Living with Mystery
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