by Denise Giardina
Ballantine Books (1987)
Storming Heaven, a fictional account The Battle of Blair Mountain (featured in the recently released film Plutocracy), has to be one of my favorite novels of all time. The author, Denise Giardina, grew up in a coal camp.
The book concerns the unionizing drive (often employing skilled African American organizers) among West Virginia mine workers leading up to the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. This was one of the most shameful episodes of US history, in which the US Army attacked 10,000 striking pro-union miners with airplanes, bombs and poison gas.
Giardina strikes just the right note in juxtaposing the brutal corruption of the miners who stole the land deeds, homes and labor of the entire region – and the energy, excitement and pure romance of a union drive that organizes against immense odds to reclaim its members’ rights to a living wage and safe working conditions.
In her afterward, the author reveals that the leaders of the United Miners Association District 17 were arrested and tried for treason. Although they had strong popular support and were acquitted, it would be another twelve years before Roosevelt abolished the mine guard system that terrorized union organizers and awarded mine workers the freedom to form unions.
When she wrote the book in 1987, Giardina was president of her local coal union. In the late nineties she became active in the movement opposing mountain top removal. In 2000 she ran for governor of West Virginia.