Intersection Column | What If There’s No Happy Ending?
by Sarah Loudin Thomas
How do you write a satisfying story about a real event that simply does NOT have a happy ending? I’ve long been haunted by the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster and wanted to build a novel around it. But it’s such a tragic story. Without a satisfactory ending. And I’ve promised my readers (and myself) to always write happy (or at least satisfying) endings.
Since there’s no comeuppance of the corporation, no underdog winning the day, and no return to health of the men who were so blatantly robbed of it, I had to look elsewhere for satisfaction. Much as we often do in real life. And I considered, what if the satisfying ending is to be found in simply remembering who those men were and what they suffered?
Several times now I’ve visited the little cemetery at the end of Whippoorwill Road off Route 19 as I travel between North Carolina and West Virginia. It’s a lovely spot, even though the highway thunders close by. This is the final resting place of what little is left of those men buried in an anonymous cornfield outside of Summersville, WV. They were forgotten there until a highway came through. Then they were relocated to Whippoorwill Road in 1971, where they were once again forgotten.
It’s thanks in large part to local newspaper publisher Charlotte Yeager that the cemetery was restored and, in 2012, consecrated and dedicated. The site is now maintained, and an impressive monument has been erected to ensure the dead are not forgotten again.
In The Finder of Forgotten Things, when Gainey, Jeremiah, and Logan discover markers in the original cemetery, each name they read is the actual name of someone who worked in the Hawks Nest Tunnel and was buried in that anonymous field. You can find a list of all the known names at www.hawksnestnames.org/names. The ones who were buried in the cornfield are listed with “White Farm, Summersville, West Virginia.”
On that list, you’ll also see the names of the Jones family, which I included in my story. Yes, all three sons and their father died, as well as an uncle. The very least I can do for Emma Jones is to include her name in my story. She should not be forgotten, either.
The death toll from the Hawks Nest Tunnel is estimated at 764 men. It’s estimated because so many of them died after leaving West Virginia. They may have returned home or moved on in the never-ending search for work during the Great Depression. It’s very likely that the silicosis those men contracted resulted in many more deaths over the years. Regardless, it was the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.
And yes, the final “reckoning” was no more than the letter of finding described in the last chapter of the novel. While there was some financial compensation, the bulk of it went to the attorneys, and what did reach the workers is accurately depicted in the wide disparity between what the white and the Black workers received, none of which is very satisfying at all.
And so, if you read The Finder of Forgotten Things, you will see that I give Sulley, Gainey, and Jeremiah their happy ending against the backdrop of a tragic event that was all too real. And while the story finds hope in the resilience of the human spirit, in finding romance at all stages of life, and in the joy to be found in families of all kinds, I also pray it helps make sure the men who died at Hawks Nest in the 1930s are never, ever forgotten.
About the Author
Sarah Loudin Thomas is a seventh generation West Virginian whose stories celebrate the people, the land, and the heritage of Appalachia. She is the author of The Right Kind of Fool—winner of the 2021 Selah Book of the Year—and Miracle in a Dry Season—winner of the 2015 Inspy Award.
It’s 1932, and postmistress Gainey Floyd is suspicious of Sullivan Harris’s abilities as a dowser, but she reconsiders after new wells fill with sweet water. Rather, it’s Sulley who grows uneasy when his success makes folks wonder if he can find more than water—like forgotten items or missing people. He lights out to escape such expectations and runs smack into something worse.
Did You Know?
There are five women included in Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:1–17): Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, Ruth, and Mary. And three of these five were Gentiles:
- Tamar from Canaan. Judah arranged Tamar as a wife for his son, Er, while living in Canaan (Genesis 38:6).
- Rahab from Jericho. Rahab lived in the city wall of Jericho, which the book of Joshua (chapter 2) identifies as the first of the Canaanite cities to be conquered with God’s help.
- Ruth from Moab. Genesis says the Moabites had the same ethnic origins as Israelites (see Genesis 19:30–38). Moab was a son of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. And Ruth was from Moabite territory.
The “outsider status” of these Gentile women is precisely what Matthew draws as he argues that King Jesus is different from other Jewish kings. Whereas in the past all pedigrees of royalty in Israel stressed only a king’s Jewishness via his male ancestors, Jesus’ pedigree includes both women and Gentiles. Their presence establishes Jesus not only as the King of the Jews, but the ruler of all nations, King of kings and Lord of lords.
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