Many of the you have heard of McDowell County, the southernmost county in the state of West Virginia. You may not remember it. However every four years, politicians rotate through, pledging to help. In addition to roving politicos looking for votes, two of the most memorable books of the past ten or twenty years have been written with key McDowell County scenes and memorable events chronicled on the pages; the images reinforced later with wonderful movies.
The first of these, Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam, just flat-out blew the socks off of memoirs for me and was supplemented in beautiful form by the movie, October Sky, which starred Laura Dern and Jake Gyllenhaal plus other perfectly cast actors. The story takes place in McDowell County, in a little unincorporated company coal town named Coalwood. At the time, mines were going full blast. The population in 1990 was 900 people, and it's probably less now. The key elements involved a coming-of-age story intertwined with father-son tension. Many of these tales, like this one, are centered around the high school years. In the case of Gyllenhaal's character in the movie (and Hickam in real life), the high school was Big Creek, a consolidated school that drew from the rural areas of poor farms and mining communities like Coalwood. My own high school team, the Princeton Tigers, played the Big Creek Owls nearly every year, and I remember the Big Creek team as wiry, raw and tough. Their field, probably a dirt coating over who-knows-what-sort of underlying composition, was higher in the middle, called a crown, and the bleachers were functional but anything but plush. The owls usually made quick work of my Tigers in front of several hundred rabid fans. The rocket boys, a small group in high school whose work inspired one future real NASA rocket boy, gained knowledge in rocketry and math which resulted in a top National Science Fair award. The little town never forgot and today the welcome sign outside Coalwood proclaims the town proudly as "The Home of the Rocket Boys."
The Glass Castle is the second book centered in, or at least with pivotal scenes, in McDowell County. Welch, the county seat, was a decent-sized place by southern West Virginia standards, but is declining; the last census showed around 1,800 people as of 2016, down from 2,400 in the 2010 count. The town made the national news several years ago by being unable to turn on its street lights at night because it could not afford the electricity bill. The Welch high school Maroon Wave actually were the "well-to-do" town school back in the day, and author Jeannette Walls was an editor of the high school paper. She lived out of town on a hill-side quite apart from the usual streets in town, with parents who were, to say the least, unusual. Her "raisin's" were the genesis of her story, which like Hickam's, is quite impressive and well-told.
My own home town of Princeton, located in the adjacent county of Mercer, has fared relatively well compared to places in McDowell County, but still has seen its population drop by ten percent from 2010 to 2016's (estimated) 6,000 even with its economy less solely dependent on mining. Fortunately, two major highways, I-77 and U.S. 460, intersect on the outskirts of town, and a thriving motel/hotel/restaurant/shopping center complex sprang up and provided a bit of a life raft to the town, which has seen its downtown pretty well dry up. Part of this is the lack of a vibrant economy, but some is due to by-pass routes that created new business development.
The decline in the coal business, is known as "Obama's War on Coal" throughout the entire region on thousands of roadside billboards and yard posters, not as a more realistic "The Impact on Thermal Coal as Electrical Power Generating Plants Switch over to Lower Cost Natural Gas Produced by Fracking." This, along with a general frustration that no one in Washington cared during the Obama administration, coupled with Donald Trump's brash comments that he was going, seemingly personally, to put all the miners back to work, along with difficult economic conditions sealed the doom of Democrats in the region. The only real solution is longer term, including more tourism, medical help to overcome obesity and opioid addiction problems, vocational job retraining and, frankly, financial help to assist those who are willing to relocate to other areas where jobs are more plentiful. The natural beauty is stunning, but the scars of boarded businesses, spavined houses and junk cars, along with broken hearts, are reminders of a heavy burden to overcome.
Please feel free to post a comment here on the blog, or email me directly at <email@example.com> with any remarks. Also, I'll very much appreciate your recommendation of "Contact Sport" and/or "Reunion" to friends and book clubs. In addition, I'd be pleased to appear at book clubs and/or radio clubs within a two-hour drive of Austin to discuss either book.