A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Having loved Yuri Herrera’s trilogy of novellas, I was excited to learn he had a new book out this year, his first nonfiction, and again translated by the outstanding Lisa Dillman. A Silent Fury is a slim history of a 100-years-ago tragedy in Herrera’s hometown of Pachuca, Hidalgo, in central Mexico. It is minimalist because records are minimal, but it is lyrical and powerful in its minimalism, and a righteous fury does shine through it. I’m ready to follow Herrera (and Dillman) anywhere.

The El Bordo mine, owned by a subsidiary of the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company, caught fire on March 10, 1920. Within hours, the company estimated that “no more than ten” men remained inside, and that they were certainly dead; they ordered all three mine shafts sealed. Six days later, when the mines was reopened, seven men came out alive. Some eighty-seven were dead.

The story is full of problems, horrors, holes. How did the fire start? When did the fire start? What made the company so sure there were no survivors (when they would turn out to be so horrifically wrong)? How many died because of their decision to seal the shafts? What responsibility does the company bear? (The appointed investigation would go out of its way to swear up and down that the company was blameless.) There exist almost no documents bearing the voices of mine workers, survivors of the fire, or families of those lost. Herrera pieces together what he can from a case file and a few news stories.

But there are also oral accounts, given by miners and their families, and it was through these that I learned about the fire: there are at least two crónicas, one by Félix Castillo, the other by José Luis Islas; and a novel by Rodolfo Benavides. All were written years afterwards.

This book, like those accounts, refuses the judicial truth that reduces this history to a file in the archive. But none of these words are mine.

Instead, Herrera writes, he reconstructs events using the accounts available, choosing the most credible version where there are several, and pointing out contradictions and omissions. “Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.” For me, then, this book is in part a commentary on what history is. There is certainly commentary; it is not literally true that none of these words are Herrera’s. Of the surviving seven miners who came out of the sealed shaft after six days, the company’s doctor and local officials agreed

that the miners were “in a perfect state of health and had no internal or external injuries,” save for the fact that a few were in “an advanced state of starvation.” They really said that: in a perfect state of health but starving to death. Rarely has a boss expressed so honestly what, in his opinion, the perfect worker is like.

We hear Herrera’s quiet (but not silent) anger again when he recounts the struggles of the family members of the dead miners, in a section titled “The Women’s Fire.” Wives, common-law wives, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers were asked to prove their relationships to the deceased, in order to qualify for compensation. “Every single one of the qualified witnesses called in to vouch for the truthfulness of their testimony was male.” This kind of simple sentence communicates a great deal of emotion.

Silence is a recurrent thread in this story. The title occurs verbatim in just one moment: in a photograph of the seven survivors, Herrera tells us that “they don’t look like they just escaped from hell… with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

I say again: they sealed the mine shafts on nearly one hundred men, for six days.

This book is deeply moving in its brevity, with a clear grasp of the power of white spaces, what is left unsaid – silence. Herrera is the right writer to probe this story again. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking.


Rating: 8 signatures.

movie: Matewan (1987)

Having recently visited the museum, I knew I had to track down this movie, which was not easy – thanks Barrett for your help!

Matewan is the retelling of the story of Bloody Mingo County and the Battle of Matewan, where the humble coal miners stood up to the bosses and lives were lost. It’s an iconic story in American labor rights history, and it’s movingly told here.

We begin with Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his film debut) arriving in the town of Matewan, West Virginia as a union organizer sent to help the locals with their ongoing strike. (I was immediately reminded of the adage that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.) On the same train that brings Kenehan are a group of Black miners from Alabama who are being brought in as strike-breakers; the local miners attack these men before they even reach Matewan, presaging racism and violence that will plague organizing efforts. Kenehan exhorts the locals, however, telling them that it’s workers against bosses, not white against Black or anybody else (there is a recently arrived group of Italian miners in town, too).

It’s uphill work getting the white WV miners to let Blacks and Italians into the union, just as it’s uphill work getting the latter groups to strike, but Kenehan’s speeches, and the poor conditions and disrespect of the mine bosses, do achieve this. Everyone puts down their tools; the miners and their families construct a tent city on the edge of town (as their housing is all company-owned), and the workers bumpily navigate their union. Meanwhile, hired guns with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency try repeatedly to do the work of intimidation: evictions, repossession of food and furnishings, and general pressure and violence. They are repeatedly thwarted by the town’s major and sheriff, and once by armed “hill people” from outside of town. For a time, it looks like the ragtag union bunch are well-positioned to win their fight, because of the tight local community. But hanging over this impression is knowledge that the company, and Baldwin-Felts, has only to bring in more and bigger guns, and eventually the town will be outnumbered.

The action of Matewan proceeds from Kenehan’s arrival through organizing and early conflicts and concludes just after the Battle of Matewan, the shootout where the mayor and Kenehan, and seven Baldwin-Felts guys, are killed. Voiceover by Danny from a later date (he is now a grown man, and still a coal miner) indicates that the union was eventually defeated in the West Virginia Mine Wars by the US military, and that conditions have more or less returned to their starting point.

Remarkable characters include the boarding-house proprietress who initially puts Kenehan up – a miner’s widow – and her teenage son Danny, a coal miner, budding Baptist preacher, and passionate union man; Few Clothes (delightfully played here by James Earl Jones), leader of the Black contingent; a flirtatious widow with a role to play; and two miners’ wives in the camp, one West Virginian and one Italian, who begin as antagonists but forge a friendship even without benefit of a common language. Several miners, union men and Baldwin-Felts thugs play individual roles, as well, but these are less developed personalities. While there is no question that this is a film with a message and that takes a side, these flawed human characters make it something more and better than propaganda.

While Few Clothes, the sheriff and mayor, and several union men and Baldwin-Felts guys were true historical characters, Kenehan and Danny are both inventions for the purpose of this film. On the one hand, I find they work very well as central characters to focus our sympathies and make the story come alive. On the other hand, I regret that it took fictional characters to do this work, and I wonder if the same emotional results could have been achieved using only true figures. I believe so; but I guess it would have been harder to focus it, with a larger cast and no one central hero like Kenehan. But isn’t that a beautiful fact of the union, that there is no one, single hero?

True events are also compressed, and sometimes conflated. I feel more forgiving of this move; this being not history, but a stylized version thereof, it’s okay with me that we made the storyline a little tighter and easier to follow, and more dramatic for its brevity. Inserting a fictional central hero feels less faithful to me that compressing a timeline. Maybe that’s just me? At any rate, if you’re learning the history of Matewan and West Virginia’s Mine Wars, do look further than this film, excellent though it is. (This should go without saying and applies to all historical fiction.)

Although a sad story and therefore hard to watch, I found this movie also beautiful and well done. I appreciated the cinematography, darkness and shadow moving, the feelings of tragedy and betrayal; it made me cry. I highly recommend it, if you can find it. Know your history, friends.


Rating: 7 rabbits.
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