Now that Pittsburgh has washed the soot from its buildings and reinvented itself for the 21st century, it is often easy to forget that our fair city was once a coal town, sitting atopone of the oldest and richest mineral deposits in the world.
The prehistoric energy compressed within the fabledPittsburgh seam fueled America’s industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and created an entire regional culture based upon coal extraction that lasted until the boom went bust a generation ago.
When We Get There, the remarkable debut novel by Greensburg native Shauna Seliy, skillfully evokes the dazed and displaced spirit of the last days of the coal era in a coming-of-age story layered with imagery and insight. In the tradition of such regional classics as The Valley of Decision and Out of This Furnace, Seliy creates a memorable portrait of Eastern European immigrants and their descendants, whose labor built industrial America.But Seliy takes her story a step further, spanning not only continents and generations, but geological strata as well; employing coal itself as a metaphor for everything from hope and strength to love and maturity.Coal imagery suffuses the novel,just as coal permeates the tissue of the characters who have its dust “in their lungs, in their blood, in all their memories of the world.”The result is a minor (or is that miner?) masterpiece that celebrates both the enduring qualities of the human spirit and the properties of that prosaic carbon-based mineral which, but for the accident of circumstance, would be diamonds.
Like many a classic literary hero, Lucas Lessar is an adolescent, a truant and — for all intents and purposes — an orphan by virtue of his father’s accidental death and the unexplained disappearance of his mother, Mirjana.He lives with his wisecracking grandmother, Slats, in the fictional hamlet of Banning, Pa.,“one town in a line of towns on a crooked spine of hills that stretched up and down the coal seam” from West Virginia to Pittsburgh.
Once a “cup of light and singing noise” in its heyday, Banning in 1974 is well on its way to becoming a ghost town.The landscape is littered with abandoned coke ovens and empty boiler houses, “devil holes,” “monkey dumps” and “boney piles;” eerie vestiges of the town’s century-long love affair with coal.Successive mine closures, cave-ins and occupational disasters have taken their toll.Now the last working mine, the great King Mine in which Lucas’ father died, is finally tapped out and awaiting the removal of its supporting stump, which will seal it forever.
Banning is likewise filled with individuals suffering from their own emotional roof-falls: grieving widows, abandoned lovers, disillusioned spouses, emasculated strongmen and aging, addled engineers; all ghosts of their former, fuller selves.And the king of Lucas’ extended family — his maternal great-grandfather — is about to shut down permanently too, following the destruction of the pear tree that was his personal totem.
Great-grandfather is an almost mythical figure; a Titan who sired an enormous family, wrestled bears and walked across Europe to America carrying little besides his vision for a new life and the seed of his pear tree.When that tree is deliberately torched by the vengeful suitor of Lucas’ absent mother, the proverbial stump is pulled from his life, demolishing its structure and meaning along with its psychological underpinnings.His health and sanity subside into a lingering operatic death, filled with ghosts and spirits from Russian folklore and marked by a spectacular rumbling, rattling cough that simulates a mine collapse.
When callow Lucas scoffs at the old man’s superstitious ravings, the patriarch utters one of the book’s wisest lines: “You think there’s someplace where things are making sense?!”Lucas naively does, and sets out in search of someanswers, starting with his mother’s whereabouts.
This decision launches him on a hero’s quest for the movie-star beautiful Mirjana,who is voluntarily lockedin a “fortress” on a hill and threatened by her evil ex,Zoli (an anagram for zloi, a devil in Russian folklore). Lucas’ adventure takes him, metaphorically, to the moon and back —to nearby Luna,where a mine fire has burned unchecked for 50 years.This surreal image, inspired by a real perpetual fire in Centralia, Pa., provides an overt simile between coal and passion.“That’s how great loves were,” Lucas’ mother once explained, “that fire didn’t understand how unreasonable it was, blazing away for all those years for no reason anyone could point to.It didn’t care about time, or about making sense — it only cared about burning.” Eventually, and with only minimal effort, Lucas finds his mother at a location close enough to reach by public transit.But she does not wish to be rescued, and Lucas is obliged to accept the reality of loss and change.
The prodigious age of the coal seam affords Lucas some perspective on his situation; serving as a reminder that there was a world before the creation of Banning and that something else will follow.“Before the fireshots and the metal hitting metal there were hundreds of millions of years of everything being quiet. …[and] … someday… the brambles and trees will grow so thickly over the mines that it will seem as if they were never there.”The King Mine closing, so momentous in the life of the community,represents less than a fraction of a moment in the vastness of geological time.When it finally happens, it is with only a “rumble slipping into our dreams.” And so it is with the passing of Great-grandfather; the loss of loved ones, like the end of an era, being but a tiny step in the long, long march of time.
Immediately following Great-grandfather’s death, Lucas suffers an illness characterized by high fever and heavy slumber.He awakens ready to accept responsibility for his actions, his family and his future; a process which suggests the transformation of coal into coke. As described in the story, the coal once excavated in Banning was cooked to become coke, which was sent to Pittsburgh, where it was in turn used to cook iron ore and make steel. “Once they had steel, they didn’t need to turn it into anything; it was just itself, the thing they were after all along.” Lucas, having passed through the fire, is transformed from a child into a young man, ready to embark on his life’s journey towards maturity and wisdom, the thing he’s been after all along.
Seliy’s novel is very accomplished; at once deceptively simple and infinitely rich. One might also write whole articles analyzing it as folklore or exploring its botanical imagery, representing growth and decay, intoxication and magic; but the coal imagery is irresistibly appealing, particularly in the way that Pittsburgh is romanticized as both a point of origin (the coal seam) and a destination (the steel city).
When We Get There is a lovely little briquet of a book, warm with humor and nostalgia, and glowing with imagination.