SUSAN KUSHNER RESNICK
“Goodbye Wifes and Daughters”
University of Nebraska Press
Relatively well known to long-term residents of Montana, the Bearcreek coal mine disaster of 1943 provides the context for Susan Resnick’s book “Goodbye Wifes and Daughters.” Based on the information provided in the book, most of the participants in this tragic affair — miners and their families, mine owners (Montana Coal and Iron), mine inspectors, the U.S. federal government, the Montana state government (including the state legislature), The Montana Coal Operators Association, and representatives of the United Mine Workers — share some of the blame for the deaths of 75 persons.
This does not necessarily mean that the miners and their families were openly aware of their complicity. Widely distributed propaganda encouraged miners to work in unsafe conditions and permitted owners to spend as little capital as possible ensuring the safety of their employees. Capturing the coal and sustaining substantial delivery of tonnage were styled as patriotic and essential to the U.S. war effort. Miners, often supported by their families, were encouraged to view themselves as heroes in the global conflict of World War II. Their jobs were just as important as those performed by combat soldiers.
At the inquest following the disaster, few miners could participate. Obviously, those most conversant with conditions in the mine were dead. Testimony was taken from mine inspectors, mine owners, a select few of the surviving workers, and even the wives of some of the dead miners. While lax safety standards were revealed, and the exposure of several of the miners to methane and carbon monoxide was documented, much of the testimony was subdued, almost as if those present wanted the affair to be over. William Reid, a survivor of the mine blast, may have set the tone of the community when, several years later, he commented, “They hit a pocket of gas and it exploded.” He chose to say no more than that. The jury at the inquest refused to assign blame: “No one would ever say why the jury chose not to hold anyone responsible,” Resnick reports. However, both during and after the inquest, individuals who might have been held responsible either denied their guilt or blamed others.
But it would be a mistake to presume that Resnick wants her readers to relive the mine disaster and to determine whether or not justice was served. She presents her facts without making direct and harsh judgments of human behavior. Instead, her primary intent appears to be to reveal the impact of the mine explosion on the victims, their families, and the community of Bearcreek. Resnick concludes that, “While the families (of the dead miners) would pay in countless ways for the rest of their lives, the men who ran the mine were officially debt free.” Still, it is difficult to read her account as anything but an indictment of a weakly regulated and corrupt American coal mining industry. It is also inevitable, too, that readers will look to the present time to discover whether or not the coal mining industry has improved in any significant way.
The community of Bearcreek was gradually laid to rest. Many residents moved away. The Bearcreek high school was dismantled. There was a 50th anniversary ceremony held “at a local senior center” at which the names of the dead were read and church bells in Red Lodge were tolled. Fundamentally, Resnick’s book, a finalist for the High Plains Book Award in the best woman writer category, is a re-creation and celebration of the ability of wives, sons and daughters to cope with terrible circumstances and to survive with a certain nobility of spirit.
Randall Gloege taught English and philosophy at Montana State University Billings for 26 years. Before and during that period he also was a wilderness and environmental activist. For several years, he served as editor of “Alkali Flats.” Currently, he is editor of an online publication called “The Pellucid Duck.”