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'Black Damp' author to speak

December 22, 2013
By SUMMER WALLACE-MINGER - Community editor ( , Weirton Daily Times

PARIS, Pa. - "Black damp" is a mining term meaning "no oxygen," and, in Kerry George's novel "Black Damp Century," the owners, unions and government threaten to suffocate the industry at different turns.

"At the beginning, it's the mine owners, and then it's the government - they all take their turn," he said.

The novel, which draws on Kerry's experiences growing up in a coal-mining family and eventually becoming a miner himself and later a federal mine inspector, spans three generations, three states and seven decades and is set against a historical backdrop, including the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain and the 1940 Nelms mine explosion in Cadiz, Ohio. Some of these historical events appear in the book just as they occurred, and others inspired fictional events, George said.

Article Photos

Kerry George, 'Black Damp Century' author, left, will speak at the monthly Coffee With the Author event at noon Jan. 22 at Paris Presbyterian Church's The Gathering Place Coffee Shop located at 127 Steubenville Pike. Outreach Director Margie Zellars, right, organizes the events. -- Summer Wallace-Minger

Growing up near the Nelms mine, he frequently thought about the disaster, those who had died and their families.

Although the story ranges across West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland, he put special emphasis on the Ohio area.

"Most people don't associate Ohio with mining," he said. "People have no idea how much is going on there."

The cover of the novel features a photo illustration, using a photo of George's grandfather - who began working in underground mines at 8 years old - in the 1920s, a photo of his father-in-law in the 1940s and a photo of George in the 1980s.

George worked as a miner, including a year spent in the underground mines; as an administrator; and as a governmental underground inspector. Experience on all sides of the issue gave him a unique perspective when writing his novel.

"There are heroes and villains in all groups," he said. "It gave me a broad perspective."

He began writing the book for his children and grandchildren, because he believed mine history was being lost.

"I wanted them to understand what their grandfather and great-grandfather had gone through," he said. "I drew on my experiences as a young person, going into the mine without knowing what it was like."

However, he believed the human element would be lost among facts and figures, so wrote a story rooted in mining history and drawing on his family's history and his experiences as a miner.

"I wrote a novel because I figured more people would probably enjoy it and pick it up," he said, adding the story originated as a screen play he wrote 30 years earlier. "People have been telling me to write this for years."

He put the screen play away and didn't think about it until he retired almost three years ago. When he decided to write the novel, he went back to school to study writing and history.

His brother-in-law and niece operate a publishing company, and they offered guidance and editing services.

"After I finished the manuscript, it must have been four months in production," he said.

His future plans include writing a book exploring mine history for beginning readers, inspired by his wife, an elementary teacher, and his grandchildren.

"They're too young to read this (novel)," he said. "They won't be able to read it for a long time."

He also wants to write a book based on the events of the 1944 Powhatan mine fire, noting that, because of World War II, it got little attention at the time.

For information on the Coffee With Author program, call (724) 729-3450.

(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at

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