EBH: Don’t go down in the Hole – Coal Mining Life in District 12 and in Present-Day Appalachia

by John on April 14, 2010

As you may have noticed from my previous Hunger Games guest post, I am deeply interested in the connections between Suzanne Collins’s fiction and the very real history and culture of Appalachia, where I live, work, and teach Appalachian culture. My husband’s mother was born in a coal mining town, and her mother has graced us with wonderful oral history material regarding life in the coal towns.

“There’s a hole in this mountain, it’s dark and it’s deep,/And God only knows all the secrets it keeps./There’s a chill in the air only miners can feel/And there’s ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed.”  The Mountain—Steve Earle

As the families of 29 Montcoal, WV, families mourn their loved ones lost in the mine explosion last Monday (the remaining four miners’ bodies were found over the weekend), Hunger Games readers might be thinking of Katniss Everdeen, whose father, along with her friend Gale’s father, was killed in an coal mining accident when Katniss was 11. In honor of those very real individuals and their families, it might be appropriate to look at a few of the ways in which Suzanne Collins’ fictional District 12 and its coal mining culture mirror the actual history and culture in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia.  Although this is a rather lengthy post, be assured that, pardon the pun, it only scratches the surface.

Katniss states that District 12 is what used to be Appalachia, but, in many ways, it is still very much Appalachia. Of course, the Appalachian mountains are a vast region, running from the Deep South all the way up to Nova Scotia before falling off into the ocean, and Katniss does not specify (yet) which part of that area is District 12. However, since coal is primarily mined in two of the four major regions of Southern Appalachia —the Ridge and Valley  section and the Cumberland Plateau—District 12 is likely in one of those areas. The weather, plant life, and food practices make Eastern Kentucky or southwest VA or WV likely candidates, as do many of the connections with these areas.

District 12 is remarkably like the coal mining towns once found scattered across the Appalachian region. These towns were built to house the miners and their families and were owned by the coal companies, so that everything in the town actually belonged to the company: homes, schools, even churches. Miners had the payment for their houses, furniture, medical care, and store credit taken out of their paychecks, which were seldom enough to cover any other expense the family had, much less enough to allow the miners or their families to save enough to leave the mines. Countless miners began working in the mines to earn enough to relocate, but the economic conditions of mining prohibited financial mobility, especially in coal towns where the miners were not even paid in regular currency, but in “scrip,” money produced by the company and good only in company-owned stores. If the miner died, his family usually lost their home, just as Katniss’s mother and Prim will lose the fine house in the Victor’s Village if Katniss dies. The ways in which District 12 miners’ lives are controlled  would have seemed familiar to early twentieth-century Appalachian miners.  The owners of the coal companies that so rigidly controlled the lives of their miners were seldom from Appalachia, and, in fact, were frequently located in large metropolitan cities or even foreign countries. They rarely interacted with those who mined the coal for their companies, just as the Capitol denizens who control the fate of District 12’s residents are distanced from ever actually having to see what is happening there. Even the District 12 tributes are cleaned up when they enter the Capitol so that they don’t offend the refined sensibilities of those who will watch them fight and die.

While conditions are far better today in coal mining communities, Katniss’s District 12 strongly resembles an early twentieth-century coal town, where malnutrition and disease were common, and miners worked long and difficult hours. In addition, the limited travel afforded by the railroad in District 12 reflects the similar limited transportation options in many coal-mining areas. The railroads were brought in primarily for the transportation of the coal, but they also provided mobility for residents in areas where there were seldom any good roads or other means of speedy transportation. However, the railroads were owned by the company, and they left when the coal was tapped out and the company shut down the mine.

In the historical mining towns, as in District 12, there was also the simmer of rebellion under the surface. Miners fought, often violently, for the right to unionize and thus be able to demand better housing, hours, and pay. These struggles, many of them against a government which sided with the coal companies, lasted well into the late twentieth-century in some communities, and historical miners often suffered the same punishments as the District 12 rebels: lack of work, food shortages, physical punishment, and humiliation in the guise of justice.  Thus, the grumbling miners on Gale’s team are following in a long tradition of revolution in the mines.

The explosion that leaves both Gale and Katniss fatherless is also a close parallel with the historic dangers of coal mining. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the deadliest year for mining in the US was 1907, in which  3,242 miners lost their lives, including 358 in the worst mine disaster in American history. In addition to explosions, miners faced the threat of being crushed, suffocated, or burned alive in mining accidents or suffering both the short- and long-term effects of exposure to coal dust or the toxic gases that Katniss thinks of when Wiress become her “mine canary” in Catching Fire.

For those injured in mining accidents, medical care was limited. Company doctors and hospitals could be expensive, just as they are in  District 12, and thus many historical miners sought traditional cures, just as Katniss’ mother uses herbal remedies to treat the injured and sick. Many coal miners were descended from the mountains’ original settlers, and thus could rely upon  a tradition of herb lore. The family herb book Mrs. Everdeen consults undoubtedly contains plants used by Appalachian  people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to supplement or replace the expensive medical care from the company doctor.  Food was also collected using the same strategies employed by Gale and Katniss. The greens, berries, small game, wild turkeys, fish, and occasional deer (though whitetail deer were nearly hunted out of the area in the early twentieth century) that supplement the Hawthorne and Everdeen tables were also collected by the miners and their families who were adventurous and competent enough to acquire them.

In order to supplement their incomes and to provide a needed ingredient for homemade remedies, coal miners sometimes moonlighted as moonshiners. Like Ripper, the disabled miner who has changed careers to become an “unlicensed distiller ,” Appalachian people, including miners, sometimes produced illegal (because they did not pay taxes to the government) white liquor that brought in needed cash and allowed them to continue family distilling traditions. Of course, the conditions in the coal towns, like those in District 12,  were typical of those that foster alcoholism even for individuals who lack Haymitch’s particular demons.

Despite the horrible conditions in mining communities, or perhaps because of them, both these towns and District 12 suffer from widely accepted stereotypes. The stereotypes of District 12 vary little from those slapped onto Appalachian people in the past and even today. The people of District 12 are regarded as stupid, backward, and hopeless, so much so that their tributes are seldom considered contenders in the annual Hunger Games, just so much cannon fodder for the bloodlust of Capitol viewers. Yet, especially as Katniss and Peeta rise through the ranks of their fellow tributes, they become popular, adored. The viewers in the Capitol want their District 12 tributes to fulfill their preconceived notions: drunk, surly, and socially hopeless misanthropes like Haymitch, or adorably backward and unaffected bumpkins.

Similarly, the mainstream media, from early photographers to today’s documentary filmmakers, often seek those images of Appalachia that confirm their stereotypes and notions of “true” Appalachia. Like the stylists who put the poor District 12 tributes in skimpy coal miner outfits every year, the media generally tries to put mountain people into one end or the other of a spectrum of stereotypes. On the positive end, there is the image of the thrifty, wholesome, clean-living mountain person who is often musical or artistic and has an uncanny connection with nature. At the other end of the spectrum is the filthy, drunken, violent brute who makes up in meanness what he lacks in education.  While there are certainly a few individuals who fall into these exaggerated descriptions, applying these stereotypes, which are both degrading, to everyone in a region negates the individuality and diversity of people in both the past and present Appalachia/District 12.

It is not clear if Suzanne Collins has ever spent much time in Appalachia, much less tramping around the coal towns, many of which are gone now; once the coal had been extracted, the companies left, shutting down the town, but allowing individuals to stay if they wanted to buy their homes and live there without any form of employment. There is certainly no mention of living in Appalachia in Collins’s official biography, and it is unlikely that her father’s military career would have transferred the family to coal country. However, she very deftly captures many of the hardships experienced by historical  coal miners(and sometimes contemporary ones, as we’ve all seen very clearly in the past week) as she shows that no matter how much the larger world has changed, in Panem, the lives of coal miners and their treatment by mainstream culture are no more evolved than the Capitol citizens, who like ancient Romans, seek entertainment from the spectacle of their enemies’ violent deaths.

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