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Sunday Books & Culture for May 19

- May 18, 2024

This week’s reviews include Chanel Cleeton’s mystery “The House on Biscayne Bay” and forgotten history in local author Steve Watkins’s “The Mine Wars.”

Vanessa Sekinger Edits the Books & Culture Section


by Chanel Cleeton

Published by Berkley (April 2, 2024)
Paperback $16.18
Audiobook $14.99

Reviewed by Penny A Parrish 

A little more than a century ago, the titans of commerce discovered Florida and turned swampland into glorious estates. Henry Flager, scion of Standard Oil, built his mansion Whitehall in Palm Beach, with 75 rooms and 100,000 square feet of living space. James Deering, of International Harvester fame, built the stunning Vizcaya in Miami, which has 54 rooms and lush gardens. Both operate as museums and art galleries to this day.

Author Chanel Cleeton has given us a similar house, named Marbrisa. In two parallel stories she unfolds a mystery about the mansion and those who lived – and died there. We first meet Anna, whose opening line is “I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would want to live in Florida.” Coming from New York with her husband Robert, she is overwhelmed by the monstrosity he has commissioned. The architect, Michael Harrison, is passionate about the project, lovingly creating the house and the gardens. When the project is finally complete, Robert and Anna host a party to show off their new home. Attendees include the newly rich and famous of Florida, as well as some party crashers who just want to see the place. And that party becomes the first and last one thrown by the couple. For someone dies that night at Marbrisa.

Decades later, Carmen Acosta arrives at Marbrisa from Cuba. Her parents recently met a tragic end, and she comes to Miami to live with Carolina, her older sister, who is her only close relative. Carolina and her husband Asher have restored the dilapidated mansion to its former glory, and the two of them rattle around alone in the space, with hired help to tend to the housekeeping and gardens. Peacocks and alligators roam the grounds, and Carmen finds herself in an isolating atmosphere where strange things happen and death is once again around the corner. The only way to find answers for the present action is to unravel the horror of the past.

Cleeton has written several books about Cuba. Her family left the island after the Revolution there in 1959. In this book, she moves from historical fiction into mystery, and she makes the transition smoothly. Animals are dying. People are dying. Readers will continue turning pages to try and discover what is going on and find a satisfying conclusion. If you need a good book to read this summer, this will keep you on your beach chair.

Penny A Parrish is a long-time book reviewer and artist. Learn more about her by visiting her page at Brush Strokes Gallery, which is in downtown Fredericksburg.


by Steve Watkins

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing (May 14, 2024)
Hardcover $19.99
Audiobook $14.99

By Drew Gallagher

If the West Virginia coal mine wars of the early 20th Century had received better casting from Hollywood there might not have been a need for The Mine Wars by local author Steve Watkins. Simply plug Sean Connery into the role of Charles Lively and play Richard Harris off him as any number of leaders of the mine workers, handy with a pistol, and you’ve got a great movie. Add in Dame Maggie Smith as Mother Jones and you’ve got a blockbuster because she’s Dame Maggie Smith, dammit!

(With the exception of Maggie Smith, what you really have is a film very similar to 1970s’ The Molly McGuires, but the comparison of the miners in West Virginia and the Pennsylvania Irish miners depicted in The Molly McGuires is apt even if their struggles were separated by a few decades.)

Because such a movie does not exist and because a West Virginia conglomerate of businessmen (many owners of coal mines) made a concerted effort to erase the stain of the mine wars from their history books, there is a glaring need for Watkins’ new book which is being marketed as young adult but certainly plays well for adult readers. Regardless, it should be required reading in West Virginia public schools starting in the fall of 2024. 

The mine wars arose from labor disputes between mine owners and mine workers in West Virginia over the atrocious working and living conditions that were allowed to fester in the name of profit. To ensure that the miners did not voice their displeasure too vehemently, the mine owners hired Baldwin-Felts agents to keep the peace through intimidation and gunplay should the need arise. The ongoing efforts to subjugate the coal workers through brute force led to a number of minor confrontations over the years until it culminated in The Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 which remains the largest labor uprising in the history of the United States.

At The Battle of Blair Mountain, nearly 10,000 miners, known as the Red Neck Army, banded together and marched from Charleston to Mingo and Logan counties to confront the mine owners and demand fair treatment. The mine owners countered with 3,000 well-armed militia and police officers to repel the advance of the miners, but ultimately it was the decision of President Harding to call in army troops that quelled the 10-day battle.

Watkins recounts the events leading up to The Battle of Blair Mountain in exacting detail and gives all of the participants their time on stage and in court where many of the leaders of the mine workers ended up due to trumped up charges conjured by law enforcement officers who were bought by, and beholden to, the mine owners.

The mine wars of West Virginia are rarely a footnote in the history of the United States and, based upon Watkins’ research, don’t even get their deserved place in history lessons in West Virginia schools. Even before the Battle of Blair Mountain took place, a large group of West Virginia businessmen got together in an effort to polish their lasting legacies and preserve their fortunes by creating a social studies book of West Virginia that did not reference the labor disputes in any way. (Not sure that paying an author to write this book did anything for their eternal souls, but that is between them and their deity of choice.)  

This hired history book was taught for decades in West Virginia schools and can still be found in some school libraries. The Mine Wars displays these very real and very compelling historic events even if Sean Connery and Richard Harris are regrettably no longer around to preserve them in celluloid.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second-most-prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 137-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. He aspires to be the second-most-prolific book reviewer in the history of FXBG Advance and is also a founding member of Dads for Puppies.

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