To the Bright and Shining Sun by Jame Lee Burke
In Rebel Voice‘s previous book review of Rain Gods, the author, James Lee Burke, stated his belief that it was his best novel. Rebel Voice, however, is of the opinion that To the Bright and Shining Sun is better, and is perhaps his very best work.
First published in 1971, the story centres upon the life of sixteen year old Perry Hatfield James, a dirt-poor miner in the Cumberland mines of 1950’s Kentucky. Perry has an impressive pedigree. His mother is descended from the Hatfields of the Hatfield/McCoy feud fame. His father is reputed to be descended from Frank James, brother of Jesse. Such a lineage puts tremendous pressure upon the young man, in an area where men are hard and goats are scared.
Trouble finds Perry when the mine-owners Association tries to further exploit their downtrodden employees who are all members of the miners Union. Tension increases when scabs are brought in to break the pickets, and Perry is one of a small group who seek to stop them. The effects of their impulsive act of resistance are tremendous and far-reaching. As the conflict between miners and mine-owners increases, it is the families of the miners who suffer the most. In a region where large broods live a hand-to-mouth existence, any shortfall can spell disaster, and so it is in the Cumberlands.
Burke does a commendable job in clearly portraying the hardships endured by the working class people of the Cumberland mountains which were dire even before their single, measly source of income was stopped. The conditions in the mines was atrocious and Burke spares no details there. The overall impact of his descriptions is to engender anger at the callous nature of the mine-owners.
Perry, whose father was severely disabled after a mine accident years before, leaves the area to take work and training with the Jobs Corp (as did James Lee Burke). Although he excels and is well respected by his peers and officials alike, circumstances back in the Cumberlands conspire to drag him urgently home, where he finds himself with sole responsibility for providing for his sizeable and starving family.
This is a truly haunting story. James Lee paces the narrative perfectly as we delve into Perry’s mind, and frustrated dreams. The setting is presented as stark and oppressive. But it is the conditions in which the people live that is most unsettling. Although many authors pen worthy tales on the plight of the black community, as well as that of ethnic minorities, fewer focus upon the terrible conditions under which poor white people also tried to survive.
The lack of decent standards of living in the hollows of the region are as pronounced as those to be found anywhere in the US at the time. The mine-owners were a Capitalist plague upon the region, and tried to bleed the miners and their families for everything they could wring from them. If a reader of To the Bright and Shining Sun was not of a Socialist mind prior to opening this book, then they certainly will be after, if they have a conscience, that is.
The men of the Cumberland are drinkers and fighters, and Perry is no different. We can see his immaturity in the binges he undertakes which inevitably lead to trouble, all of which could be avoided. Yet how many sixteen or seventeen year old boys can avoid trouble entirely? This author certainly couldn’t.
Perry Hatfield James is a real person, regardless of his fictional nature. He is petulant and foolhardy. He is, therefore, normal, and sadly the conditions in which he grew up and lived were also all-too-normal for that region. I recall watching a documentary, a few years back (it may have been Louis Theroux, but don’t quote me on that) about the people of the Appalachians of today, and the tough lives they were obliged to lead.
One lady of indeterminate years, but who appeared to have aged well before her time, was the small and wizened mother of two young boys of about fourteen and sixteen. The poor woman had to walk almost 7 miles to get to her job as a cleaner at a McDonald’s, where she worked for minimum wage. She walked 7 miles home in all types of weather to provide a meagre income for her two, fairly ungrateful sons who stated their embarrassment at her humble station in life. James Lee Burke could have scripted that scene, such is the disillusion and sense of abandonment and decay to be found among the population of the Cumberlands in To the Bright and Shining Sun.
Upon his return home, Perry is immersed in seeking revenge against the mine-owners deputies for their actions against his family. He desperately tries to find work, but there is none. All of the striking miners are in the same predicament. When the Union finally gets the men a fair wage for their strenuous labours, the mine-owners Association engages in further chicanery. The Union men seemingly can’t win. Such was life then, and such is life today in the US and across the globe as the Capitalist Captains of Industry grow fatter upon the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary people. And still we stay silent and begrudgingly endure.
Rebel Voice is of the opinion that few authors, outside of the US, can accurately capture or create that haunting, lonesome quality so prevalent in the classic literature to be found in that nation. Hemingway could do it, as could Steinbeck. Cormac McCarthy has the gift, as did Carson McCullers.
And it is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that most strongly echoes that sense of frustration that good people have with a callous society that would see them powerless in the face of Capitalist-imposed adversity.
Perry is yet another tragic victim of a brutal system founded upon exploitation and inequality. It is in great works of fiction that we can best understand how bad it really was. The authors of such works have no need of exaggeration. The stories were already written in the tears of the people.
Sadly, nothing has changed since Perry’s time. The greed, corruption and subjugation continues unabated.
Perry fights the mine-owners. He fights his violent and self-destructive neighbours. He fights the oppressive and ineffective bureaucracy that demands to control them, and he fights against his own weaknesses and flaws in his efforts to be truly free. It is gut-wrenching to see the young man being knocked from pillar to post as his family suffers and is torn apart.
‘Upon such thoughts are revolutions founded, and fought’
It can be disappointingly addictive to watch Perry’s trials in To the Bright and Shining Sun. Burke has excelled with this book and, remarkably, it is one of his earliest. His insight and compassion are measured in the reader’s emotive responses, which should be considerable in this reading. This book must be regarded as an American classic and, therefore, Rebel Voice has no hesitation in urging readers to grab hold of this piece of art, from James Lee Burke, and not let go.
Sult scale rating: 9 out of 10. Very highly recommended. A truly haunting masterpiece from one of the greatest authors of this or any time.
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