Wednesday, November 30, 2016
"We Be Warm Til Springtime Comes" by Lillie D. Chaffin BOOK REVIEW
Until recently I had never read anything by Lillie D. Chaffin even though she was from Pikeville, KY, and had served as Kentucky's Poet Laureate in 1974. She also has an Appalachian Literature award named for her at my Alma Mater, Morehead State University. After having read her children's book, "We Be Warm Till Springtime Comes", I have to admit I had been remiss by not having read her work. I strayed into the book during an expedition to a small antique store which a friend owns where I sometimes buy a few items for my personal collection. On that trip, I bought a few books of Appalachian or Kentucky interest and "We Be Here..." was one of them. It was published in 1980 by Macmillan and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom. The copy I bought was in excellent condition with the dust jacket in nearly perfect shape, still contained the original poster of one of the illustrations by Bloom. It also contained a signed letter and post card from Ms. Chaffin to the previous owner. I would probably have bought the book even if it were not purely Appalachian.
The book is intended for juvenile readers from about the third to sixth grade and is a most genuine Appalachian story about a poor family living in poverty in the mountains in the middle of a hard winter. The family is composed of a mother, a son about ten years old, and a small daughter. The family is facing an increasingly hard winter with no coal or wood to burn for heat. The son makes a decision, over the mother's objections, to go to the coal bank on the hill behind their house to dig for coal to help them survive the winter. This is one of the most genuine and authentic Appalachian stories I have ever read. Although we never burned coal when I was a child, the family farm on which I was raised in Knott County Kentucky contained the remains of two coal banks where previous owners of the land had dug for what is known locally as "house coal".
For those of you who have no knowledge of coal banks, they are small holes dug into a coal seam which is at or near the surface for purposes of gaining access to enough coal to heat a home and fire a cast iron cook stove or "step stove" as most of them were known. But after several years of digging, a coal bank might be as much as hundred feet deep inside a hillside. Few of them ever had a solid roof and roof falls were numerous. I have never dug coal in a coal bank. I was very lucky to have a family who lived somewhat above the level at which many of our neighbors did. But I grew up with and went to school with several children, mostly boys, who had to dig house coal in order to facilitate family survival. I went to high school with three children whose father whom I knew was killed accidentally by a mishandled charge of dynamite during an effort to obtain house coal from a coal bank.
The inherent danger of digging in a coal bank combined with the hard winter and poverty work to make this a very tense book for a young reader. But it is an excellent book for such readers at the same time since it focuses on the boy's self sufficiency, honor, and determination to help his mother and sister survive the winter. His willingness to take a potentially fatal risk to assist his family is the heart of the story. It is wonderful story and well worth reading. I will take the time to find and read more of Lillie D. Chaffin's work and so should you.
Lloyd Bloom's illustrations for the book appear to have been originally rendered in charcoal and present only a few shades of black, white, and grey. In another setting, they might be considered a bit goth. But they do an excellent job of increasing the tension of the book and stressing the dangerous potential of the effort. Go online at a good used book site and find a copy. You will enjoy this book a great deal.