Marked by the Land

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In The Coal Tattoo, Silas House’s third novel, House conjures up a setting that breathes and hums with life. Kentucky coal country in the 1960s is more a character than a mere backdrop for his story. Easter and Anneth, the sisters at the heart of the novel, are as bound to the mountains, creeks, and fields of Black Banks, where they were born and raised, as they are to each other. A prequel to House’s earlier novel Clay’s Quilt, The Coal Tattoo offers a glimpse into the deep relationship between people and land.

House casts the orphaned sisters as opposites in every way. Anneth is as free-spirited as Easter is devout and straightlaced. At 16, Anneth compulsively sneaks out at night to flirt and drink at honky-tonks, dancing to the latest songs by Elvis, Patsy Cline, and Sam Cooke. "I don’t intend to be like you," she tells Easter after being dragged home one night. "I’m not going to set in that house with you on a Saturday night. Not going to lay down early so I can get up and go to church. I want to live, Easter. Why don’t you?"

In answer, Easter seems to live even more quietly and prudently, pouring her energy into church life and the care of her rebellious sister. She’s faithful, mystical, and responsible to a fault. Of course, Easter and Anneth need each other desperately, like two halves of a complicated whole. Easter has to take care of someone and admires the spark in her beautiful sister; Anneth secretly respects Easter’s faith, finding comfort in the knowledge that her sister prays for her.

What at first threatens to be a clichéd older sister-younger sister relationship spins out into something more nuanced, as each sister’s natural inclinations are challenged and shaken in the novel’s unfolding. Easter faces a crisis of faith following personal tragedy and loss; Anneth’s need for male attention and the "big time" she’s always chasing start to fade as disappointments pile up. However, their mutual devotion binds them together as the years pass and the war and changing economies affect their lives. The novel picks up momentum and becomes more affecting as it moves forward, leaving behind the early chapters that sometimes get bogged down with the family’s past.

DEATH AND the ghosts that continue to haunt us in place of the people we love are a major focus of House’s tale. Powerful memories of her parents and two grandmothers, Serena and Vine, come to Easter in visions, letting her see a dramatic and often painful family history that no one has told her and that she doesn’t want to know. "Their family had been marked by death, as if they were cursed," House writes. "Their family history was a convoluted affair. Had it been a solid, visible thing, it would have looked like many rivers converging, seen from high above. It was a water crowded by secrets and lies." The knowledge of these secrets and lies comes to Easter unbidden, informing her quiet personality and giving her hidden strength.

Music is a thread throughout The Coal Tattoo and a significant narrative element within it as rock and roll and country songs punctuate the story. Easter reluctantly loves country music and, of course, Anneth gets fired up by the energy of rock and roll. And music informs House’s writing in his descriptive passages and the rhythms of his dialogue.

In his acknowledgments, House thanks real people who have challenged the strip mining practices of big companies. He clearly has an understanding of mining communities and an abiding respect for their values. The novel’s central metaphor also provides its title—the coal tattoo is a permanent mark sometimes seen on the skin of miners who survive a tunnel collapse. It’s a lasting sign of survival and sacrifice and a perfect image for House’s moving tale.

Andrea Jeyaveeran works for the literary organization PEN American Center. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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