The way things are going these days, the market for books about declining industries may soon be a robust one. But before anyone drafts a pitch for a book on Southern Ontario’s vanishing automobile sector, they should read John DeMont’s Coal Black Heart as an exemplar.
The book, which combines family history, natural history, social history, labour history, and some reportage, is a good, but not perfect, read. DeMont, a seasoned magazine journalist who has written about the Maritimes in past books, does a good job of explaining how Nova Scotia (especially Cape Breton) has been fundamentally shaped by the coal industry.
Coal Black Heart is at its best when DeMont uses anecdotes to describe the colourful ways that Cape Bretoners dealt with mundane problems, such as the epithets devised to distinguish between the many common Scottish surnames in those communities. (At one point, there were 650 MacDonalds on the payroll of the Dominion Steel and Coal Company, and almost a quarter of those were named John.) Some of the nicknames were derived from people’s jobs or physical attributes, but others were far more whimsical, like the Stood the Heat McNeils, who, as DeMont puts it, “at some point had done something brave.”
Snippets such as these serve, in some ways, to brighten Coal Black Heart’s bleak core. Much of the book is about broken promises from governments and businessmen to the working people who sometimes squandered their health or lost their lives in the mines, and who fought valiantly in violent labour disputes, particularly in the first quarter of the 20th century.
While the DeMont family history component of Coal Black Heart generally pales in comparison to the tales of miners who aren’t among the author’s direct ancestors, these glimpses into the joys and hardships of the labourers form the most affecting part of the book.