The title of Suzanne Pickett’s evocative and gracefully written memoir, “The Path Was Steep,” foreshadows the two primary motifs of her book, motion and struggle. Wife of an ambitious and restless coal miner, Sue, as she was commonly called, recreates the challenges and the rewards of life in the coalfields of Alabama and West Virginia during the years of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Despite the many hardships her family faced, Pickett’s great sense of self-worth, her estimable creative powers, her boundless curiosity, and her impressive energy enable her to rise above circumstances that might have broken a weaker spirit. Moreover, Pickett places the events of her own life in a national context. Through reading Sue’s memoir, for example, we can clearly see the circumstances that led to the often-violent conflicts between labor and management that were so widespread during this period.

The lives of the Pickett family seem to be defined by motion. In search of employment, Sue’s husband David—like so many of his contemporaries—hitches a ride in an empty freight train boxcar to leave Alabama in search of employment in Michigan and Kentucky and then in West Virginia, where he finally finds work in the coal mines. Sue and her young daughters, Sharon and Davene, then journey by train to join him.

Once the family is settled in West Virginia, they manage to acquire a 1926 Studebaker, which becomes like a fifth member of the family, earning the name of Thunderbolt because of the loud sounds of its protesting engine. David loves speed, careening around dangerous curves on a mountain road in West Virginia called the Jumps. As Sue peers beyond the precipices, she can see below the broken carcasses of automobiles that have slid off the highway, and she fears that her family may end up with the same fate. But such fears are always trumped by the desire or need to go somewhere.

Nothing seemed to reduce the Picket family to idleness and despair, no matter what difficulties they encountered, and the difficulties were numerous during those Depression years. First, there was the constant struggle to provide for the basic necessities of life. In 2013, very few people are still alive who can remember firsthand the extent of misery and deprivation during the 1930s, and reading about the period in school textbooks doesn’t fully convey how many were suffering or how badly. Consider, for example, that the lowest point of the Great Recession that began in 2007, some 8 to 9 percent of U.S. workers were officially unemployed. But in 1931, when David Pickett was roaming in a desperate search for work, some 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. labor force was simply unable to find a job of any kind. And in those years before the New Deal reforms of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration—backed by coal miners’ labor unions—there was no safety net. No Social Security for the aged, no energy assistance for those without heat.

We can well imagine David’s sense of relief when he finally found work as a coal miner in West Virginia. Even then, there was no guarantee of how many shifts he might be given. Then there was the constant danger in the mines. Deaths in U.S. coal mines numbered more than a thousand a year in the early part of the twentieth century. Thousands of other miners were seriously maimed in accidents each year; Sue considered David lucky in that he merely broke his foot in a mine accident. “Black lung” was not well understood until years after the period about which Sue Pickett writes, but that disease, too, caused by constantly breathing in the fine coal dust which filled the underground mine shafts, crippled and reduced the quality of lives of many longtime miners.

Nonetheless, the uppermost concern for the Pickett family was that David find employment. The pay he received was barely a living wage, but somehow the family made do. Sue even earned $1.50 a week writing for the Daily News in Welch, West Virginia, crafting poems from the dreary headlines of the day. But the Picketts were much better off than their family and friends back in Alabama. In fact, quite a number of Alabamians came to West Virginia to stay with them while looking for work, often unsuccessfully. Nobody was turned away.

Another struggle the Picketts faced was being confined to cramped quarters. Throughout the memoir, we repeatedly have the sense of far too many people crowded into far too little space. Thunderbolt, designed for five passengers, amazingly transported fourteen family members on a trip of 140 miles. Plus there was the matter of privacy and modesty in the overpacked houses of that day. Sue, for instance, became adept at changing her clothes under the bedcovers while a room was crowded with people.

Both in West Virginia and Alabama, the Picketts frequently struggled with the elements. Inadequate heating and cooling as well as insufficient clothing and cover were a constant challenge. One freezing night, they arrived unannounced at Sue’s father’s house to find all sleeping spaces taken. Sue and David managed to squeeze their girls into beds with others and then took themselves to a cotton storage room to spend the night covered over by mounds of cotton.

As tough and resourceful as Sue and David were, they could only make it with the help of others. Sue’s brother-in-law, George, told them, “As long as I’ve got a biscuit, you won’t starve,” and that seemed to be the attitude of most of Sue and David’s family and friends.

Despite this mutual support, mineworkers and their families were, for the most part, no match for oppressive mine owners. By 1933, the ever-restless David had learned that jobs were again becoming available in the coalfields of Alabama, which were an integral part of the iron and steel production that had contributed to the industrialization of Birmingham. So the Picketts moved back to Bibb County and settled in the company town of Piper, established in 1901 by the Little Cahaba Coal company and named for industrialist Henry F. DeBardeleben’s partner, Oliver Hazzared Perry Piper.

Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, and in 1933–34 his policies began to restore hope and bring some relief to the desperate. Still, the weak economy suppressed the wages of even those fortunate workers who had jobs. Sue tells of a group of miners who went to their bosses and pled for higher wages because their children were starving. The owners refused, one suggesting that the children could eat mussels from the mountain streams and hickory nuts from the trees of the forest. Sue’s resentment of this callousness is palpable, and she sympathizes with the coal miners as they take drastic steps to achieve better wages and work conditions.

In 1933, a series of coal strikes were called by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, of which the United Mine Workers Association—led by John L. Lewis—was a part. Previous strikes by miners in Alabama had been suppressed by private security forces of the industrialists with the backing of state government, and in 1933 Alabama Governor Benjamin Meek Miller called out the National Guard to put down the strikes. But by the spring of 1934, some 90 percent of Alabama coal miners were unionized and their collective strength was too great to be denied.

Those miners were, of course, both white and black. While Sue does not dwell at length on the issue of race, she is writing about a period in Alabama and Southern history in which race loomed large in both law and culture. David Pickett began working in the mines in 1926, and it was not until 1928 that Alabama’s brutal convict leasing system was abolished; 90 percent of the convicts sentenced to what amounted to a second form of slavery in the state’s coal mines were African American. The first few decades of the twentieth century were also the peak period for lynchings in Alabama, and the rigid system of Jim Crow segregation governed every interaction between blacks and whites. Sue does describe, if briefly, a moving incident in West Virginia in which her Alabama racial acculturation collided headlong with her inherent sense of human decency and the guilt she felt from that incident. How many thousands of white Southerners must she have spoken for in the few paragraphs she wrote about that encounter? On their trips back and forth between West Virginia and Alabama,  Sue and David would also have passed near Scottsboro, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the 1931 “Scottsboro Boys” events unfolded. Some of the cross-racial organizing around that famous case took place within the labor movement, which was gathering force after thee election of FDR in 1932 and factored into the coal miners’ strikes. Sue describes these strikes in some detail.

Sue describes a thousand miners—of both races—from the Cahaba coalfields arming themselves and surrounding a building in Coleanor where the owners and their armed guards were discussing how to break the current strike. This event in March of 1934 ended without bloodshed, due largely to the positive influence of the union leaders. The owners surrendered and agreed to negotiate. David, armed with his own weapon, participated in this event, and Sue respected him for it.

After the Depression, things got better for the Picketts, as they did for families across America, due in large part to FDR’s reforms. David became superintendent of the No. 9 mine in West Blocton, Alabama, and he moved his family into the spacious superintendent’s house. When he took a job in another mine, his successor chose not to live in that house, and David was able to buy it, much to Sue’s delight. The Picketts spent their last years there, and Sue resumed a journalistic career begun back in West Virginia. For a number of years she wrote a column for the Centreville Press. Typically, she began by describing the beauties of nature, recording rapturously the first jonquils of the season or the first blooming of the dogwoods. She then wrote of family and friends, and she often ended with religious musings and exhortations.

I discovered Sue Pickett from these articles, and she was in her eighties when I first met her. Friends from West Blocton took my wife and me to visit her at the superintendent’s house. It remains a memorable experience. Dressed in white slacks and a white blouse, a beautiful lady with her white hair piled on her head invited us into her living room. I have always heard of understated elegance, but I saw it that day in that room, with its few well-chosen decorations. While we were there, she brought out a large box containing manuscripts, correspondence regarding her writing, and newspaper clippings. She showed us a letter from a magazine editor accepting a short story and complimenting her on her writing.

Later on, when I read The Path Was Steep, my mind went back to that day, as the same pride, love of beauty, and kindness I witnessed then are present on every page of the memoir. The book gives us not only a window into a significant era in our nation’s history, but a fine example of a life well-lived.

Norman McMillan retired as a professor of English at the University of Montevallo. He is the author of Distant Son: An Alabama Boyhood.

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