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Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland Hardcover – January 26, 2010
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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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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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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.
The blinders are off, and I shed tears and tears realizing that the rape that beautiful place--including Grandpa Woods' farm--brought so little good. I was much more comfortable in my ignorance, thank you very much, Mr. Biggers. But thank you for showing and telling us the story of Eagle Creek.
Deborah Heal, author of Every Hill and Mountain.