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.