There was an error in this gadget

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Rose by any other author would not read so sweet

Anyone following my blog surely knows that I greatly admire the writing style of Martin Cruz Smith, the author of Gorky Park and the subsequent series of books about Arkady Renko, the Moscow police detective. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading a less well known creation of Smith’s called Rose. This was a story of a British mining engineer recalled from Africa by his capitalist employer to find his daughter’s missing fiance in a coal mining town in 19th century England. While doing so, the engineer uncovers several intrigues and falls in love with a mine worker named Rose.  

The book is gritty – you can feel the coal dust in the air and the vapor of darkness that covered the landscape from the constantly running furnaces powering the coal mine’s operations. Did you know that in those mile deep mines in Lancashire county that fresh air was circulated throughout the miles of tunnels by a single huge, roaring furnace at the bottom of the mine fed with 60 tons of coal 24 hours per day, 365 days per year? The fumes were vented through a chimney that ran to the surface but the almost volcanic heat of the furnace sucked oxygen from the surface deep into the bowels of the mine. If the furnace ever went out, everyone in the mine would suffocate.

Another curious feature was the elevator that ran from the surface down to the heart of the mine over a mile below. It dropped at a speed of 40 miles per hour and had no automatic braking system. The elevator was controlled by a man called a ‘winder’ who sat above ground watching the dials indicating the elevator’s progress and manually braked the elevator. This was his single job the entire day. If his mind wandered and he forgot to brake at the right time, the elevator with 30 men in it would crash at the bottom killing all. Same thing coming up. The elevator, if not braked, would come flying out of its shaft destroying its support beams and then plunge down again out of control to the bottom of the mine with all aboard. The winder worked in a shack by himself completely undisturbed. His concentration had to be absolute. It was said that the foremen knew to only put illiterate men in that job, because literate men could not concentrate all day on the dials.  

The work in the mines was incredibly dangerous. Thousands died (they really did have canaries in the mine to warn of bad air) and yet thousands more were eager to take their place because it was a job. And men needed jobs to support their families and for their own self respect. If you focused on the living conditions in the mines, Rose was a sad story of desperate, hard-scrabble lives held in virtual bondage by capitalist owners who never thought of themselves as evil but rather as clever businessmen trying to maximize the value of their capital. After all, they didn’t force the men to take these jobs – they could quit at any time. After I read Rose I watched a documentary on BBC on British coal mines in the early 1900’s (conditions hadn’t changed much since the 1800’s) and it told of one mining disaster that took the lives of almost 200 men and the owner didn’t pay the widows the salary of their husbands for the day they died – after all, they hadn’t finished their shift.

But in the end, Rose wasn’t a sad story. Somehow love always manages to trump attempts to snuff out the human spirit. In the end, the title character tells the protagonist that if he takes her with him back to Africa ‘I will love ya till my dying breath’(or words to that effect). Rose - an altogether uplifting and informative historical novel with something to say about the effects of unregulated capitalism on the lives of average people.

My next blog post will be a brief discussion of how South Africa fits into my future writing plans.  

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

2 comments:

SwissMiss said...

I read this and really disliked it. I don't remember exactly why, but I think it was that I found the characters cliched and trite, and the writing mediocre. Also probably one of those instances where I felt that the writer was trying too hard to show off their research into the era. The funny thing is, if you actually read a book from a past era, they hardly spend any time on describing all the technology, customs, and history (presuming the reader is familiar with it). Yet they are still able to set the stage in their era. There's gotta be a way to do it!

Jim Haberkorn said...

Hi SwissMiss. Thanks for your comment. Just before I read 'Rose' I started to read a very commercially successful novel. I really enjoyed all the interesting research, but after 50 pages put it down as the research wasn't drawing me into the story or characters. I was being hit over the head with it just to keep my attention. I then picked up 'Rose' and had just about the opposite reaction.
Do you remember how 'Rose' began, with Blair, the protagonist, saying that of all women, he thought Africans were the most beautiful. Then later, his first sight of Rose was her washing away the day's thick accumulation of black coal dust from her perfectly white skin. Which one was the real Rose, and did the coal dust cover her up or reveal her to Blair? In any case, the book grabbed me on multiple levels. Thanks again for commenting. Jim