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The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser

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This book offers a powerful and informative perspective on America’s worst industrial disaster: the building of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in West Virginia in the early 1930s. It resulted in over 700 worker deaths, mostly from the effects of ingesting silicon dust. The vast majority of the dead were black men recruited from the South. About half of this book is a reprint of “The Book of the Dead” a portion of U.S. 1, a book of poems by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) published in 1938 by Covici Friede. These compelling and disturbing poems incorporate many quotes from testimony by victims at hearings held in January of 1936 by a U,S. House Labor Sub-committee investigating the tragedy. They also reflect Rukeyser’s experience personally investigating the site of the tragedy in the Spring of 1936 along with her photographer friend, Nancy Naumburg. The title of this portion of this poetry book, “The Book of the Dead,” reflects not only how deadly the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel construction was, but also Rukeyser’s visit to an exhibit by that name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art dealing with Ancient Egypt. The title of that whole poetry book, U.S. 1, was designed to offer readers a taste of America’s grim Depression-era realities to contrast with the mainstream perspective of the Federal Writer’s Project’s book: U.S. One: Maine to Florida, a highway travel guide published the same year. Rukeyser’s trip to West Virginia was followed a few years later by trips to the trial of the “Scottsboro Boys” in Alabama and to Spain at the beginning of Francisco Franco’s fascist takeover of that country. Her activism attracted a 118-page report by the FBI of its spying on her. The other half of this book consists of an introduction by Catherin Venable Moore who lives near the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. She calls attention to Rukeyser’s poem “Praise to the Committee.” The Committee was the group of Black women and men who actively resisted the practices of the Union Carbide subsidiary that employed the tunnel workers without offering them protection. The Committee sponsored lawsuits, legislation, relief, and efforts to deal with Fayette County Sheriff C. A. Conley, the hotel owner they considered the head of “the town ring.” The name of George Robinson, a leader of The Committee, also appears on a list of a small portion of those who died that was smuggled out of a company facility and that Moore found at the Gauley Bridge Historical Society. Moore also relates the horrifying pleas of Leon Brewer an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration who visited Vanetta the town of shacks created to house Black workers. Pictures of both the town and the kitchen of George Robinson taken by Nancy Naumburg are included in this book along with the partial list of those who died, their race, and their place of burial. This is truly a crucial book for anyone who cares about our region, despite the fact that it is really horrifying.

Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018. 125 pages with a 51-page Introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, two pictures by Nancy Naumburg, and a map by the author. Trade paperback with a cover that features flaps like a dust jacket, $17.99