The Path Was Steep

Jan 13, 2014

“The Path Was Steep: A Memoir of Appalachian Coal Camps During the Great Depression”
Author: Suzanne Pickett, with a Foreword by Norman McMillan
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Pages: 210
Price: $24.95 (Paper)

Suzanne Pickett, who sold many stories to “Weird Tales” and wrote for many years a personal column for the “Centreville Press,” passed away in 1999 but now, 14 years later, NewSouth Books has published this lucid, informative memoir of her life in Piper, West Blocton, Haig, and a number of other then-active coal mining communities in Bibb County.

The jacket copy and publicity materials emphasize a highly dramatic event in the Bibb County community of Coleanor. Under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms, workers were finally free to unionize and they did. Ninety percent joined the United Mine Workers under John L. Lewis. Demands were made and refused. In March of 1934 a strike ensued with the company once again bringing in strike-breaking substitute workers—scabs, and an army of men to guard them.

Perhaps a thousand outraged miners, alerted by the local Paul Reveres, surrounded the guards’ headquarters armed with their own rifles and shotguns. The miners were incensed—willing to fight, even kill, if necessary, but the mine owners capitulated and, miraculously, no blood was shed.

These miners were normally law-abiding fellows but they had a powerful grievance. Two years earlier, following the Crash of ’29, many mines had closed and the miners, down to a few days’ work a month, were desperate and their children were hungry. They petitioned for extended credit at the company store, not charity. Pickett writes: “Every cent would be paid. They were honest men, hardworking when there was work, and they had guaranteed the debt.” But the owners’ answer, delivered by their spokesman, a Mr. Sherrod, was: “Let them eat mussels, plenty of mussels in the [Cahaba] river; let them eat hickory nuts.” It seems Mr. Sherrod had not read much about Marie Antoinette and her fate.

And, Pickett writes, the miners knew how the owners lived over the mountain: “Cadillacs, furs, jewels, trips to Europe; these had been the accepted way of life for them.”

No surprise here, the miners never forgot nor forgave.

As dramatic as this section is, it is not for me the best part of the memoir. I enjoyed the picture Pickett draws of daily life, regular family life, among these folk.

Sue’s husband, David, blonde, strong, handsome, the hero of her book, after an unsuccessful trip to Detroit, took the family for a while to West Virginia where he found work. Also, it was with the “Daily News” in Welch, West Virginia, that Pickett started her writing career.

As she puts it; “To amuse myself I had begun to write the daily news in rhyme and read it to the [children].” Her landlord called these rhymes to the attention of the paper’s editor and Pickett’s rhymes were featured daily, on the front page, at the wonderful sum of $1.50 per week. Pickett became a local celebrity. Despite this success in West Virginia, the Picketts were homesick for Alabama. They travelled back and forth in a 1926 Studebaker named Thunderbolt, over the worst roads imaginable, every trip a life-threatening adventure.

When they had troubles, however, strangers helped. The amount of sharing among poor people in this memoir is astonishing. Families pooled their resources. Those with food gave to the hungry. A stranger at the gate, usually on the move looking for work, was fed something, and often given a bed for the night.

Farmers, who had little cash, had gardens and orchards. Pickett’s papa grew piles of corn, tomatoes, peas, squash, cucumbers. Papa even planted a field of okra open to anyone who needed some.

Okra is magic; the more you cut, the more there is.

Life was nevertheless incredibly hard. There was no cash for what must be bought: aspirin, sugar, coffee, shoes. There were frequent accidents at the mines. With families and friends living together there was no space and no privacy. But, as with Steinbeck’s indomitable Joads, the people endured, literally in this case, to tell the tale.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”