My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
I generally don’t read religious-themed novels, if ever, but Carla Kelly’s My Loving Vigil Keeping was so much more than just that. Not only was it rich in narratives but also a well researched novel based on a turn of the century mining town. But the most special thing about this novel was the fact that it was based on the Scofield Mining Disaster of May 1, 1900; a tragedy that took the lives of at last 200 miners on that fateful day.
I’ve never heard of the Scofield tragedy until I began reading the reviews of this book. Even then I didn’t really pay much attention to it, not knowing what to expect. What I didn’t expect is to completely get absorbed in the lives of these miners. Carla Kelly quite successfully blended her research into a fictional world that kept me hooked till the end. It’s then I begin reading about the tragedy and how it all happened. The information is not complete, and no one still knows exactly what happened inside the mines (#1 and #4) since high-tech equipments were unavailable at that time. My heart broke for these miners who passed on, also for their families who suffered thru the tragedy God knows for how long afterwards. I could only hope those miners didn’t suffer much... Unfortunately, even knowing that everything in this book led up to that disaster so that I’m prepared for it didn’t make it any more bearable when the inevitable happened. It broke my heart all the same.
Della, an orphan, came to live with her rich uncle and his family when she was only 12. Since her uncle was rather oblivious to anything other than his big lawyer job, he left everything else to the hands of his wife. Della, the proverbial ‘poor relation’, was never welcomed into this household with open arms as if she’d sully their uppity life and living with her presence! She was fed and had a place to live but that’s about it. Della was ignored most of the times, as were her needs while growing up. Della’s father, the younger brother, was the family ‘blacksheep’ who loved adventures. He was always trying out new things. So while Della’s uncle did his best to erase their family’s more humble past, her father went to a mine. He also met a beautiful Greek girl while in one of those, had Della but wasn’t able to marry her in the end. He tragically perished in a mining accident couple of years later. Della has never met her mother. Needless to say, Della’s mean aunt made it sure everyone around her knew that she’s illegitimate, leaving her quite effectively alone in the world. Della didn’t have a lovely childhood to be sure. She was an awkward child who was teased more often than not by her classmates which she coped by working at the school library. It also gave her a little financial help when she needed it the most. You just have to read it to believe it because honestly, there’s no way I can capture this girl’s sad and lonely childhood. It was a wonder that she grew up so well, or should I say, made herself grow so well!
Della has never complained to his uncle about the shabby way she had been treated. Either way, she was always set on leaving as soon as the opportunity arrived. She had been working as a teacher to a local school, much to Della’s snooty aunt’s dismay. Then one day, the opportunity finally arrives. Della finds a teaching job that no one was willing to take, in Winter Quarters in Scofield. But since it’s a mining town so high up in the mountains, that spot was left vacant. Della, probably for the first time in her life, felt this sudden impulse. She’s going to fill in; not only because it’d give her the perfect excuse to leave but also, it brought back some vague, yet long cherished memories of living in a mining town with her handsome father back in those days. No matter how much her uncle’s family wants to erase that thought, Della wants to relive it all over again. In a few days, she was on her way to a new beginning.
Della’s time in the Winter Quarters starts with adventures, and it remained that way; new adventures every day. She’s not fond of heights but she welcomes it nonetheless. On her way, at first, she meets the doctor of the town, Emil Isgreen. She’s then welcomed by Israel Bowman, the other teacher of the school she’d be teaching in. As her journey went on, Della also meets the miners. She’s pleasantly surprised by the revered way she’s treated by these men. It was very apparent that they wanted the best for their children, and was aware that nothing beat education. They also knew not many people wanted to venture out here, which made Della a celebrity of sorts for even wanting to be here, didn’t matter that her contract was only for a year. She’s very moved by this show of respect because her so-called living relatives never ever thought her that worthy. Yet these strangers did. Della’s now resolved to make the best of her time here, to do anything possible for the children of these miners.
Della began feeling at home very soon, not only because she’s was used to living in a mining town but also the way everybody made her feel welcomed. She wins over new fans each day by witty banters and easy camaraderie. The whole mining town is a big hub of mixed race; Welsh, Scottish, English as well as Finnish miners live here with their big families. I learned that because Scofield mines were known to be the safest in the country, it was called the ‘family mine’. Majority of the miners had more than one family member working side by side. So very ironical that depresses one even to think of it. Which is why, the whole community here was presented as a great big international family. Though in small ways they sought to preserve their own traditions, as a whole they stood together. I didn’t see any big conflict among them that could keep them apart. Della was promptly taken in in a way that she leaves her emotional. Her own blood relatives never made her feel as welcomed as these simple miners.
Della finds lodgings with the Welsh community thanks to a female boarding house owner. Mabli. She’s also introduced to many other miners with the help of the foreman, Rev. Parmley, an elderly Englishman who was popular among his charges. Incidentally, the people here were Mormons, something Della also shared with them, so they’d go to the church together. Many a pages in the story were spent on their church activities, mostly the choir and the hymns. Because Della had a great voice, she was told that her help might be needed here. In a funny way, she discovers that that is not the case as the church here already posses a superb choir. Every person who sang there had wonderfully brilliant voices. Even the people who attended would sing with the choir in such a harmony that left her overwhelmed with emotions more than once. For Della, the whole experience was simply divine.
Della wouldn’t have been a part of this choir had it not been for one Owen Davis; a miner and widowed father to 6 yrs. old Angharad, also a Master carpenter. She met Owen very early in the story through Rev. Parmley. They soon struck up a friendship of sort that developed into subtle attraction. Owen married young and lost his wife young. He raised Angharad almost alone from her infancy. What I meant as a big family would be this; when Gwyna died, Owen had to turn to the nursing mothers of his community day and night to feed his baby girl. This is how Angharad became a daughter to many a woman who nursed her whenever it was necessary. Owen is very loved by the community and everybody wants him to be happy. He’s still in love with his wife and hasn’t even thought about moving on beyond raising Angharad to the best of his capabilities. I really missed Owen’s POV throughout as the story because even though third person narratives, it was told from Della’s POV.
Della’s ties to big names, her uncle being THE famous railroad lawyer, while a distant but loving family friend being one of the richest men around, proved to be a trouble at first. The simple miners were wary of her rich relatives as well. But as soon as she cleared their doubt by talking about her own past and how her relatives’ big names don’t really count because she has known dire poverty just like them, Della was able to mingle with them more freely.
Mabli is Owen’s sister-in-law, so he regularly visits her boarding house. Della is also introduced to Angharad and instantly takes to her. Quickly enough, she has a life eked out with a daily routine as the school starts in full force. The only difficulty she faced was with Miss Clayson, the grumpy headmistress of the school. Everyone was so wary of her that they’d give her a wide berth, saying there’s a dragon lives in the basement of that school. Think I don’t have to explain where Miss Clayson used to live. :D She didn’t mingle much and was very rude to Della since day one, so much so that Della thought she’d lose her job sooner rather than later. This is why the transformation of that tentative relationship was more meaningful in the end of the story. But for now, somehow Della manages to hold on and starts her school job more pleasantly than she’d expected. She finds solace in the fact that the kids are brilliant, most very eager to attend school every day, learning as best as they could. Their day to day activities were a lovely read. By the time I got half-way through, it felt as if I was living there myself, learning their ways personally.
Owen’s attraction to Della was almost too subtle. He was a good man who couldn’t help wanting her. I saw how he became protective of her very early in the story. He was concerned about Della’s well being and tried to show it in small ways, like carving beautiful wooden pieces just for her or by walking her home in the evening. People in his community welcomed their budding relationship because they also loved Della. Since Gwyna’s death, no one saw Owen smile, let alone enjoying himself. But around Della, he was different, lighter somehow. Yet Owen didn’t know if he can move forward just yet, so it took him a while to come around. This reluctance to move forward becomes an issue for them. Della understood it, or tried her best and she held no grudges towards Gwyna. But being in love with a man who still couldn’t think beyond his past couldn’t have made any girl happy. Della wanted her own family. She adored Angharad who returned it tenfold. She had a wonderful relationship with Mabli too. Owen became her best friend soon after they met. She knew in her heart that Owen felt something special for her which is why his reluctance hurt. Della knew rejection and frustration too well but it hurt more because it came from him. She became insecure, not knowing if Owen would ever be able to accept this new reality. At one point, despite everyone wanting her to be around for as long as possible, Della becomes determined to move to a new school after her contract here ended. How can she live here day after day with this insecurity eating her from the inside out? TBH, I was also feeling her pain, yet I couldn’t completely blame Owen either. He was a very loyal man, think you get the picture.
I can honestly go on and on because the story goes to describe, at length, about many mining town activities (most I had no idea about) and the many traditions they held. The simple lives of the miners, their proud bearing and thoughts on their profession but most especially, their love for their families and a secret hope for a better future for their children. It’s not really possible for me to capture all in here. Only when you read is how you experience it. The romance of Della and Owen was not on the centerfold as the story was leading to that tragic event. The whole incident and the aftermath was so heart wrenching, especially when it was made to look as if Owen didn’t survive... I can’t explain to you how difficult it was for me to even get through the rest of the story. I probably wouldn’t have done a review but thankfully, he was one of the very lucky few who made an escape.
My Loving Vigil Keeping was a slow moving story but I didn’t care. The only complain I had would be the abrupt ending. Though there were some hasty hints to Della-Owen’s future, I needed to read it, to learn how they coped with the aftermaths. They only just found each-other right after such a big disaster, there definitely should’ve been a few more chapters for closure. I craved it and thought I was cheated out of it. Even after days of finishing the book, I kept thinking about them. I wish there was a follow up story because I’d absolutely love to read it. With that hope, I’ll conclude my review. 4.5 stars for a wonderfully heart-tugging read.
Note for those who don’t know: My Loving Vigil Keeping, the title, comes from the lyrics of a well-known traditional Welsh lullaby, “Ar Hyd y Nos” or “All Through the Night”. It’s a beautiful song and you can find different rendition in youtube. I had to go look for it and listen to it of course, my personal favorite being this one. :) After that, the title, as well as its connection to the storyline became more apparent. Many-a-times, you’ll find Owen and Della singing this song to Angharad in bed at night.