As a coal miner’s granddaughter, the title of Marilyn Nesbit Wood’s memoir, The Day the Whistle Blew intrigued me. The subtitle is The Life and Death of the Stansbury Coal Camp, which is clear foreshadowing. Marilyn Nesbit Wood opens her soul and digs deep to write about her family’s experience with coal mining. The Day the Whistle Blew deals with family dynamics on almost every level. It also encompasses poverty, work ethics, public education, the tight control of coal company towns, and the disparity of wealth between blue collar and white collar workers. In doing so, Wood captures the culture of the ‘40s and ‘50s spot on.
She shares many sweet memories in the memoir. Some good, such as the company-sponsored contests, as well as tragedies like a family betrayal after her father’s untimely death.
The idyllic summer family tent-camping vacations she describes at Granite Hot Springs were typical for people who wanted a getaway on a shoestring budget. And the tension her childless wealthy aunt and uncle put on her and her brothers during their long summer visits is palpable.
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, her life revolved around the underground mine, community, and family in the coal camp of Stansbury, Wyoming. Built by Union Pacific Coal, the town seems idyllic. Families had homes with indoor plumbing, children enjoyed friendship and freedom and the men had a steady income.
However, as the demand for coal wanes, the desperate mine foreman demand more and more from their workers, often putting the miner’s lives at risk. One day, Wood hears the whistle that signals a death and it seems to blow for hours. It was the day her father lost his life in the mine. Unexpectedly, Wood’s life changes forever.
She writes honestly and compellingly about mines, coal camp kids, miner’s wives, company towns, letting go and acceptance. She writes about the generosity of the town doctor who provides money for Wood to attend college, something her father promised before his untimely death.
Her descriptions of her first love were discreetly charming, while some of her descriptions were shocking. She revealed frictions in her relationships with her siblings, school friends, extended family, as well as her parents. There were a few times I squirmed and wondered why she’d included certain details in her memoir. But that was my problem, not the writer’s.
The chronological organization of this memoir makes it easy to follow, unlike so many memoirs that skip from one subject to another, or those that jump back and forth in time. It is a well written, structured and paced memoir; a searing story of bittersweet survival.
The Day the Whistle Blew: The Life and Death of the Stansbury Coal Camp by Marilyn Nesbit Wood is published by High Plains Press.
Reviewer Cheryl Bazzoui is a frequent contributor to BookMark and is a writer who uses the pen name Ann McCauley.
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