Most people, especially West Virginians, have heard of Homer Hickam, the author of Rocket Boys. It was a best-selling book that spawned the hit movie October Sky and, for a while at least, thrust the Mountain State into the national consciousness. Fewer people know, though, that Hickam, who fought in Vietnam, was an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist, and even a paleontologist, has written several bestselling fiction and non-fiction titles. Almost all of them have ties to his home state. Some, like Red Helmet, take place almost exclusively in the coal fields of West Virginia.
The title comes from the fact that all trainee miners are given red helmets so the veteran miners (black helmets) and supervisors (white helmets) can easily identify them and, hopefully, keep them out of trouble. The book tells the story of a set of unlikely lovers. Song Hawkins is an exotically beautiful woman who is a highly successful business executive in New York City. Her job is to choose businesses for her father and employer, Joe Hawkins, to buy and sell. It’s a cut-throat business and Song is the best there is. Cable Jordan, son of the late (and no, I’m not kidding) Wire Jordan, is the supervisor of the Highcoal mine in Highcoal, W.Va. They meet in the streets of New York City one day when she literally falls into his arms. They are inexorably attracted to each other and, almost before they even know they’ve done it, the couple have gotten married on the beach in St. Johns.
It is an epic example of the it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time situation. But things get complicated when the honeymoon ends. Song loves her job and can barely find West Virginia on a map. Cable not only loves his job but is essentially the heart and soul of the town. Without him, the mine would almost certainly go under. And even with him, it’s in great danger of failing. And he can’t figure out why. That’s the central issue around which the entire second half of the book revolves.
The two go to their respective homes and talk on the phone every day, but the calls get shorter and shorter as Cable struggles to keep up with the mine’s orders for a special kind of high quality coal that is needed by Indian steel manufacturers. Song loses patience and flies from New York to Charleston, where she’s picked up by her groom and promptly loses her lunch on the serpentine, rolling roads between there and Highcoal. Things don’t go better when she gets to town and promptly alienates pretty much everybody with her attitude toward the locals, almost all of whom are second and third generation miners or miners’ wives. It just keeps getting worse until Song finally leaves after only four days, vowing never to come back to that backwards little town.
But she’s clearly unhappy, so her dad does something unexpected: he buys the coal company that owns the Highcoal mine. Next thing we know, Song is back in Highcoal as a Red Helmet, trying to figure out why the mine can’t meet its quota when it seems like it’s pulling more than enough good coal from the ground every month. At this point, the book moves from a story of star-crossed lovers to a full-on detective thriller, complete with spying, theft, chase scenes, and even a couple of murders. And, of course, it ends with Song and Cable trapped in the mine together, fighting for their lives against a cave-in, a fire, and a drug-addled miner out to crush their skulls with a shovel.
I say of course because, while this book is a relatively fun and easy read, it borders really closely on predictability and cliché. The good guys are often crusty but soon clearly have hearts of gold. And the bad guys are bad from square one. So the characters, other than Song and Cable, might do with a little more roundness. Or a lot more.
But that’s not to say it’s all bad. I learned an amazing amount about coal mining and I could really feel the affection Hickam has for the hard-working folks of the southern coal fields, as well as his frustration over how the rest of the country sees and treats the people of the region. I did come out of it with a deeper sense of respect for the resiliency and industriousness of these often misunderstood people.
All that being said, this is not nearly as good as Hickam’s best-known work. It definitely has its moments, especially the climactic scene, which reminded me just a bit of the ending of a Clive Cussler adventure. Those moments, however, are separated by long stretches of semi-stock characters and somewhat preposterous events. The idea that a tiny New York woman who has never done anything more physically strenuous than yoga, could, after just a week of classroom training, walk into a coal mine and almost immediately become so adept at nearly every aspect of mining that she’s gained the respect of the whole community in less than a month, just stretches credibility to its breaking point, and yet, the whole third act of the book depends on that premise.
So I guess I can’t say I highly recommend this book. And yet, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I even teared up at the epilogue. So I guess the best way to put it is to say that I don’t not recommend it.