This is one of those novels that I had forgot about, unearthed in the quest to catalog all our books on LibraryThing.
I read it in 1974 or ’75, shortly after it came out. When my old copy showed up in a box the other day, I had an instant jolt of recognition: ah, a good story. So I sat down to read it again, but very carefully. My copy is brittle and the binding is loose, but you most probably can find a hard cover copy at your library. I just ordered a used hardcover, as the book is long out of print.
So, historical fiction set in a mining village in Scotland. Maggie, born into a family that has been digging coal for generations, wants more. The first step, she believes, is to find the right husband, and that means going elsewhere. On her sixteenth birthday she sets off for a resort town where she finds and beguiles an empoverished highlander who lives on kelpie soup and seaweed, but he’s tall and blond and strong, and he can work. His name is Gillon Cameron.
She exacts a promise from him, that he’ll come back home with her and take up coal mining until they’ve saved enough money to move on. Twenty years later, their five boys are now working in the mines along side Gillon.
Gillon is the most intriguing character here. He makes a life for himself, reads books about coal, comes to understand the geology, stumbles across a tiny and unvisited library and begins to read more widely. He gains the respect of the town and the miners, and he acts quickly and courageously to save the life of a young man caught underneath a slab of coal.
Little by little he comes to a place where he understands he has to challenge to mine owners, which puts him in direct opposition to Maggie, who is so focused on saving money that she can’t bear the thought of any disruption. This is the heart of the story, and the resolution is not the one you might expect.
This is a first class historical novel, closely observed, excellent detail, but most of all, a story that works in all its parts.