Tuesday, May 17, 2005

book review: Bad Ground

I’ve just finished reading Bad Ground, a second novel by Dale Cramer. After reading his first book, Sutter’s Cross, I had high expectations for it. He didn’t let me down.

The book is a coming-of-age story. It opens with 17-year-old Jeremy leaving the only home he’s ever known on instructions left by his mother in a letter she wrote on her deathbed:


"When the time is right I want you to go find your uncle Aiden, and when you find him, stay with him. He’ll try to run you off, but don’t you let him. Do whatever it takes to stay with him. You have something I couldn’t give him, and he has something I couldn’t give you. I won’t tell you what – you’ll just have to find out from each other. When you find it, you’ll know..."

And so with $63 and all his earthly possessions in a duffel bag, he sets out from Tennessee to Atlanta, to find his uncle.

A series of misadventures follows but he does eventually find the underground mine where his uncle works and gets hired to work there himself even before he connects with Uncle Aiden, called Snake by everyone else. As we might expect, Snake is less than thrilled Jeremy has shown up.

The book takes us through the next year. Jeremy, thrust from life with his devout and over-protective mother into the rough and dangerous world of underground miners, quickly realizes how naive, untried and unprepared he is. He learns about hard work from the uncouth and demanding Biggins and about how to handle himself at the bottom of the employee pecking order. He overcomes deep-seated fears, gets to know a beautiful girl, and even gains a measure of admiration from the others on his first hunting trip.

Jeremy also becomes the catalyst for big changes in the burn-scarred and reclusive Snake – the biggest of which is dealing with the guilt he has carried for ten years since Tom’s (Jeremy’s father, his brother) death.

Cramer’s characters are colorful. Besides the profanity-prone Biggins (Cramer defies the writer’s truism here by merely telling us he swears, sparing us the showing of air turned blue with actual profanities), we meet men with intriguing names like Nanny, Geech, Moss, Weasel and more. Jeremy himself gets dubbed "Germy" in his first encounter with Biggins. These characters are drawn with realism and affection as each adds his own brand of humor and wisdom.

The wisdom part Cramer does particularly well. The book is full of proverb-like gems:

Weasel shrugged. "...But they’re human, and humans are incapable of perfection."

"Okay." Geech studied him for a moment. "And why, Wise One, should we lug this particular nugget of wisdom around with us?"

Weasel leaned back in his seat and tapped the edge of his plate delicately with a fork. "Because it’s possible, while you’re looking for something perfect, to let something very good slip away. And it’s a shame when that happens, because what you’re looking for doesn’t exist. Perfection is an absolute."

and folksy observations about life:

"See?" Moss said quietly, watching Jeremy’s face. "That’s God. You can always find God, even in the low places – especially in the low places – if you know how to look."

"You are a preacher," Jeremy said.

"We all are." The old man laughed. "Everybody preaches something."

so astute yet obvious, you shake your head and think – I wish I’d thought of that.

The book is also replete with symbols. Take, for example this section, which recalls the book’s title, and where Cramer, as I read it, is referring to the mine, the men who work in it and the lessons learned underground. Geech has sent Jeremy to hammer a quartz crystal from the place in the tunnel where Geech earlier was almost killed:

Geech rinsed it off under a waterspout and shined his light on it. Quartz crystals of various sizes huddled together – little pyramid-tipped spires crowding together like a miniature city, cracking the light into a thousand rainbow shards. The whole thing was evenly salted with pinpoints of iron pyrite, glittering like tiny stars. Jeremy had never seen anything like it, and said so.

Geech held it close to his face, studying it under the flashlight. Finally he handed it to Jeremy. "You can have it. I already got one of these."

"Cool! You find stuff like this all the time?"

"Nah." Geech swept the fractured ceiling with his flashlight. Only in bad ground."

Though Jeremy’s religious faith plays a big part in the story, the book rarely becomes preachy (there are actually one or two sermons, but they are short and pithy). Rather, we are privy to Jeremy’s thoughts during times his faith is tested, and answers are offered through the story’s events and through the father-like character Moss, who is the mine’s watchman. The message is there throughout though, made all the more powerful by its subtlety. The story deals with themes of facing fear, and finding forgiveness and redemption in an almost Bible allegory way. Here, for example, is the moment Snake (who grew up with faith but has turned his back on it) comes to a powerful realization:

Things had changed in the last twenty four hours. From beyond the grave, Julie had sent her only son to offer him forgiveness – and this time it was genuine. The symbolism was not lost on him. After ten years in the desert he had seen the hand of God, and he knew it for what it was. Tom was right. God was real.

There is one aspect of the story which makes my eyes glaze over, however, and that is the detailed description of the mine machinery and how it works. There is even a diagram! Although this lends authenticity, it is way above my comprehension. It’s probably warranted, though. If Cramer’s understanding is as complete as it seems, an underground miner should be able to read the book and vouch for its credibility.

All that to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Bad Ground. I recommend it to adolescents and up. I’m sure you will find it, as I did, a beautifully written, layered and worthwhile read.

**********

Bad Ground has made the list of finalists for the 2005 Christy Awards (General Category)!

Hat Tip: faith*in*fiction

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