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Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland Hardcover – January 26, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Journalist Biggers tallies up the human cost of more than two centuries of coal mining in southern Illinois in an intimate, informative yet uneven book. Part historical narrative, part family memoir, part pastoral paean, and part jeremiad against the abuse of the land and of the men who gave and continue to give their lives to (and often for) the mines, the book puts a human face on the industry that supplies nearly half of America's energy. Biggers excavates the history beneath the homestead at Eagle Creek where his family lived for eight generations. The displacement of the indigenous Shawnee, the hidden legacy of slavery, the bitter and bloody conflicts between miners and their bosses, and the environmental devastation wrought by the mines are detailed as part and parcel of the region's coal-mining history—a history obliterated along with the mountaintops and clean streams scraped away by the miners' steam shovels. Written in a personal and poetic style, the book suffers from poor organization, but it offers a rare historical perspective on the vital yet little considered industry, along with a devastating critique of the myth of clean coal. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

Ancestrally connected to hilly southern Illinois, Biggers combines memoir with labor and environmental history in this portrait of the region. Coal-rich, it has been extensively strip-mined; endowed with salt, it drew American settlers in the early 1800s, Biggers’ forebears among them. As a returning native, Biggers writes of his reconnection to the area through locally significant people, among them a man whose project is to revive the Shawnee presence, which permits Biggers to delve into the history of Indian expulsion from what is now the Shawnee National Forest and environs. Meeting others dedicated to preserving local history, such as a publisher of a local magazine, gives Biggers his entrée to places and stories pertinent to the history of Illinois’ coal-mining industry. Alighting upon union organizers such as Mother Jones (whose grave is in Illinois), strikes, mining accidents, and sundry operations of mining companies, the author lists his many grievances with the coal-mining industry, both for past actions and for future plans, which generates stylistic energy that will impress readers of labor history and contemporary opponents of coal mining. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Nation Books; First Edition, 1st Printing edition (January 26, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1568584210
  • ISBN-13: 978-1568584218
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,546,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jeff Biggers is a historian, journalist and playwright. Winner of an American Book Award, he is the author of several plays, including Damnatio Memoriae, and works of memoir/history, including State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, The United States of Appalachia, and In the Sierra Madre. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers and national public radio programs, including NPR, the New York Times and The Guardian. He blogs frequently for the Huffington Post. His website is

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Bob Kincaid on February 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover
As the Prophet Isaiah queried: "What will you do on the Day of Reckoning, when evil comes from afar?"

Having just completed my first reading of Jeff Biggers' masterfully crafted, meticulously researched "Reckoning At Eagle Creek," I am left feeling nigh-breathless at the scope of the evil that came from afar and visited a nigh-Biblical plague upon people in the form of the heartache, sickness and grim Death that always serves as the handmaiden of coal. Such a sensation is fitting, I suppose, for a book that recounts the history of the thousands of human beings rendered breathlessly mute by the ravages of Black Lung, slate falls, mine explosions, poisoned waters, blasted hills, choked valleys, murdered workers and whole communities literally blown off the map in the merciless, ceaseless quest for the Holy Profit of Coal.

Jeff Biggers has crafted out of family history and regional history an honest, unblinking reckoning of the costs paid by a nation and, indeed, a world for what we have been assured by the industry for more than a century is "cheap" coal. Mr. Biggers proves in the pages of "Reckoning At Eagle Creek" that the only way to see coal as "cheap" is to view the lives, history and heritage consumed in its acquisition as being even cheaper still.

"Reckoning At Eagle Creek" is the manifestation of one man's quest for understanding of where our dependence on the nastiest fuel form on the planet has taken us and where that path ultimately leads. That quest is neither fanciful nor mythical. It is rock-hard and bone-real. With its publication, "Reckoning At Eagle Creek" becomes an immediately necessary resource for anyone who seeks to understand the ever-increasing toll we all pay for "cheap" coal, for "cheap" electricity, for "cheap" heat.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By EMom on March 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
How can such a heartbreaking story be such a pleasure to read? The use of language is as lovely and rich as the landscape that's destroyed for the sake of greed. Our grandchildren and great grandchildren will read this book and wonder how we could rape, pillage, and plunder the place and the people for cheap coal and maximum "profit".
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Stewart on November 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the third of the books I have read over the past few years about the coal industry's less than positive contribution to our lives. I have yet to see a pro-coal book interesting enough to pick up, but what is there to learn? Coal is cheap and plentiful to one degree or another, and most of us do enjoy our electrically powered computers, appliances, climate control, etc.

This book is different from Big Coal and Lost Mountain because Biggers has a personal, ancestral connection to the area around Eagle Creek that has now been strip mined for coal. This book is as much a recounting of his search for the past as it is a treatise on the problems of coal mining and burning. Yet, it is not without its insights: notably, Biggers exposes the links between coal and legal or tolerated slavery in Illinois long after the state was declared "free," and he discusses with disdain the history of this idea of "clean coal" (FutureGen is not the first technology described as such).

My love of mountains and the coal industry's love of removing mountaintops to get to the coal underneath in the least expensive way possible do not seem compatible, nor am I impressed when hiking around a strip mine reclaimed into a half-hearted state park. However, Illinois coal is supposed to be pretty uncontroversial other than its high sulfur content (which FutureGen would supposedly solve). Reckoning at Eagle Creek shows that coal mining does not need to involve mountaintop removal or carbon dioxide emissions to be disturbing and harmful.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By James Denny on June 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover
"Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland" is a personal journey of author Jeff Biggers. Biggers goes on a "vision quest" back to Eagle Creek in southern Illinois to report on what strip mining coal has done to his family's historic farmstead and to the larger region.

The historical context of this region, a region often referred to as the "Illinois Ozarks" provides the basis for his narrative. In the best parts of his narrative, Biggers includes a history of the Shawnee Indians who were prominent in the area, the early salt trade, the competing interests of the French and English as traders and settlers moved through and into the area. His own family's history as a settlement-era pioneering family is brought into the narrative.

Biggers introduces the concept of "historicide," which is the elimination of the effects of human habitation on the land when the entire landscape is destroyed. In large-scale strip mining, the impact on forest, farm and field is total destruction.

Also known as "Little Egypt" and so-named because this part of southern Illinois is where the Wabash, the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers all come together, this is a geographic region with its own topography, a limestone geology with sinkholes and caves, an area once part of a large, inland sea. Depending on your view, Mother Nature either blessed or cursed this area with plentiful seams of accessible bituminous coal.

I enjoyed reading this book and got a good sense of place and of the impact of coal mining upon it. However, the impact of "Reckoning at Eagle Creek" is weakened by a lot of rambling, an excessively loose organizational structure and a lack of sharp editing to reduce redundant narrative. Many of the same statistics and arguments show up in successive chapters.

I am prepared to offer four stars for the content but only three stars for the organization and structure.
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