Two sisters are orphaned when their father is killed in a coal mine accident and their mother, insane with grief, takes her own life. Easter, the older sister at 22 is conventional, a churchgoing woman who sees her life as performing her duty. Anneth, 17 is fun-loving, somewhat wild and scornful of authority. The setting is coal mining country in Kentucky in the late 1950s. It covers 11 years to the end of the 1960s.
When the grandmother who is raising the girls dies, Easter gives up her dream of attending college to work and support herself and her sister. She despairs of getting Anneth to straighten out her life and become what Easter would call a good person. Anneth, five years younger, tries hard to help Easter break out of her shell and enjoy herself. She can't understand the strait-laced life her sister leads.
When Anneth talks Easter into joining her at a New Year's Eve dance, Easter meets the man she is destined to marry. Anneth, at the same time renews a relationship with the guitarist at the dance. She agrees to marry him when she finishes school. A year after graduation, she elopes with him, but soon realizes that though he worships her she cannot respond to his feelings.
There's a sense of tragedy running through this book. The sisters' family has seen many deaths at relatively young ages. But this is a valley where death strikes many families because of dangerous conditions in the mines. The title, "Coal Tattoo," is based on the mark coal leaves on a miner when it hits him hard enough to injure him but not kill him. It is the mark of the survivor. At the same time, music - country music, rock and roll, church music - runs through the book. It is no coincidence that there's a country song of the same name about the dangers of mining. Silas House mentions the song's composer, Billy Ed Wheeler, in the acknowledgements.
Anneth marries twice and divorces twice. Her second marriage, to the mine manager and son of a mine owner, ends violently when she learns that his company plans to strip mine the ridge above the home her family has occupied for more than a century. The sisters' deep love for each other is challenged by their very different lifestyles, and is especially stressed after Easter's baby is stillborn.
This report prepared by David Gordon