Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Wordcraft – A hardscrabble life, beautifully remembered

Running on Red Dog Road
by Drema Hall Berkheimer
One spring day in 1940, 29-year-old West Virginia coal miner Hursey Lee Hall went to work as usual. Wearing his carbide lantern helmet, carrying his dinner bucket in his hand, he said goodbye to his wife and three children, the youngest a five-month-old infant named Drema. His family would never see him alive again. In compensation for his death, the mining company paid his widow one thousand dollars. It also ordered her to clear out of the little company house the Hall family rented, because on the third day, the family of the miner who would take Hall’s place was moving in.

In Running on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood, the memoir written by the Halls’ youngest child, that infant with no memory of her father who would grow up to become Drema Hall Berkheimer, there’s no indication that the young widow protested the coal company’s treatment. Awareness of the injustices of life was a lesson the likes of the Hall family learned early in the coal mining country of West Virginia.

Instead, Mrs. Hall, born Iva Kathleen Cales, used the $1,000 to buy a house on a road paved with the waste product of coal mining, the mix of burned trash coal and shale. “The heat turned it every shade of red and orange and lavender you could imagine.” It was hard and sharp. It was the stuff the locals called “red dog.”

Over the years, that house on a red dog road would be home not only to the Halls and to Kathleen Cales Hall’s parents, the Grandma and Grandpa of Berkheimer’s memoir, who cared for the children when Kathleen went to New York to take a Rosie the Riveter-type job during World War II, but to other members of the Cales family as well as a stream of itinerant preachers and missionaries of the Pentecostal sect the elder Cales believed in so fervently.

Seen through the eyes of the child Drema, the life lived there was idyllic. The adult Drema gives readers a between-the-lines look at life in one of America’s poorest regions, in a decade barely emerging from the economic chaos of the Great Depression. There’s a brother left permanently deaf by the meningitis that nearly took his life, a succession of gypsies and homeless tramps, none of them ever refused a meal by the Cales. There’s the beloved grandfather returning to the coal mines despite lungs already blackened by coal dust. And there are more deaths, of people who face agonizing ends medicated only by prayer and a few sips of dandelion tea. (Grandpa Cales, dying at last of cancer, refuses even the meager solace of a patent medicine because its alcoholic content offends his religious convictions.)

In some hands, this milieu could be depressing. In Berkheimer’s lean but luminous prose, it is transformed into a transcendent masterpiece in miniature, a small story exquisitely told.

The young Drema (and perhaps the adult Drema as well) can juggle such contradictions as that of revered matriarch Grandma Cales’ belief in a compassionate, all-knowing God with the same God who would allow terrible suffering. A God about whom, “No matter how many times He let her down, Grandma could always find something good to say. . .”

(Even Grandma Cales, however, draws the line at accommodating a snake-handling sect the family encounters. As Berkheimer reports of Grandma, with a figurative wink, “‘The Bible says if you have enough faith, you can pick up serpents and not be harmed, but I don’t think God’s going to be offended if I don’t take Him up on it.’. . . Grandma always knew what God thought. She and God were on real good terms.”)

I was lucky enough to be a member of the Dallas Writer’s Garret critique group when Berkheimer shared several sections from the manuscript that would become Running on Red Dog Road. No matter how much we begged her to post her writing ahead of time to give us a chance to relish it, it always emerged at critique sessions already revised and changed. Always better than we could have hoped for. I cherish those memories as well. For those less lucky, or who want to refresh our memories, check here for more about this remarkable writer.
Does having been saturated in Berkheimer’s gorgeous prose have anything to do with one of my own minor accomplishments – emerging as a winner in the 2016 Writer’s League of Texas manuscript contest? My work in progress, The Ugly Man, was a winner in the WLT’s thriller/action adventure category as well as a finalist in its science fiction/fantasy category. See the site for a complete list of winners and finalists.


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  2. Amazing review about a remarkable writer and friend. Love Drema and her book. And congrats, Melissa, on your win with Writers League of Texas. That's HUGE. :)


    1. Thanks, Kathleen. Drema's book was a joy to read.