The title of Carla Kelly's newest novel My Loving Vigil Keeping is taken from an old Welsh lullaby, Ar Hyd Y Nos, which has been translated many times and is well known today in English. It has been a favorite of Welsh male choirs for many decades and is a fitting title for this touching story of a school teacher who falls in love with a Welsh miner in a turn of the century mining community near Scofield, Utah. The very name "Scofield" sets up the reader to know this romance goes beyond being a romance to an historical event that rocked not only the state of Utah, but the entire mining industry.
Growing up an unwanted child in her wealthy aunt and uncle's home, left Della Anders insecure and lonely. She never knew her mother and her father died in a mining accident when she was twelve. She has been made to feel inferior because her father was a miner and her mother abandoned her. After years of neglect she goes to work for Auerbachs department store in Salt Lake where she earns enough money for one year of college, enough to get a teaching certificate. On an impulse she accepts a teaching position in a small mining town called Winter Quarters a short distance up the canyon from Scofield.
The mining town is nothing like the bustling city Salt Lake City had become by the end of the nineteenth century. The high altitude leaves Della struggling to breathe, the houses are tiny, cramped shacks, the principal of the small school where she will teach is cranky and unwelcoming, the trees have all been cut down, and over everything lies a film of coal dust. Even the air reeks of sulfur and coal. Soon she discovers there is another side to this small community. Though they represent many nationalities, the people share a close bond and care deeply for each other. A large segment of the people are Mormons, especially the Welsh immigrants, but the close relationship extends beyond nationality or religion. The company doctor, the Welsh miner Owen Davis and his daughter Angharad, Owen's sister-in-law, the bishop who is also the mine manager, the other teacher in her school, and miners of various origins who make it their responsibility to escort Della back to her room when she keeps the library open until after dark, all become a part of Della's life and her growth into a strong and capable woman.
Della soon learns that the life of a miner is harsh and it takes a special kind of man to face the mine shift after shift, and a special kind of woman to kiss her man good-bye at the beginning of the day and watch him disappear into the mine never knowing if he'll return to her. She gains an understanding of those parent's determination to see their children educated and given a choice in whether or not to become miners too. She learns of their pride in accomplishing the nearly impossible, their commitment to their work, and the deep sense of honor that guides their lives.
Few people have never heard of the Scofield Mining disaster or are unaware that more than two hundred men lost their lives during that tragic event. Kelly prepares the reader with great care to love and care about the mining community, to understand the various cultures involved, and to dread the disaster the reader know is coming, then to share the shock and desolation when it does. To say more would ruin the story.
Kelly is adept at creating characters the reader can truly care about. She does this without forming black and white personalities, but by being realistic in imbuing even the best characters with faults and shortcomings with which the reader can identify. Her characters grow and mature in complex ways, sometimes through personal effort, sometimes through experience, and sometimes through a little nudge from above. Even minor characters change and evolve, giving the story greater richness.
I found the plot develops at a comfortable pace, though readers looking strictly for the romance portion of the story may find it a little slow. Kelly is known for writing wonderful romances, but she is also well-known as a serious historian. In this novel she combines the best of both skills.
Carla Kelly is well known to the international publishing world. She has published more than thirty novels and has received numerous awards including two Rita Awards, two Spur Awards, and a Whitney Award. She has traveled extensively, but currently she and her husband live in Wellington, Utah, though their five children are scattered around the United States. Even as a prolific writer she finds time to volunteer at the Railroad and Mining Museum in Helper, Utah.
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MY LOVING VIGIL KEEPING by Carla Kelly, published by Bonneville Books, an imprint of Cedar Fort, Inc., paperback $8.99, Kindle $2.99
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