Last Thursday was a special day for retired educator and author John Kekec, 80, of Bonne Terre. It was the official release date for his new book, “Fire in the Hole.”
This work of historical fiction looks at the lives of miners and their families takes place in some of the country’s lead, coal, iron, and zinc mining districts, as well as in the Ozark region, around the turn of the 20th century.
Kekec said the story “focuses on a generation of people forced to adapt to the rapidly expanding industrial revolution, along with all the hardships that came along with it.”
The life of a miner in the 1900s was certainly no cakewalk.
“Most of the men were working long hours for short pay,” Kekec explained. “They faced dangerous and unhealthy working conditions down in the deep underground mines, digging along the canals or working in sweat-shop factories.
“At the same time their families were living in the oppressive and degrading conditions of mine camps or in the tenement housing found in big cities. Because of the usual exploitation of most of these workers at the time, widespread labor problems and resulting riots became rampant.”
There’s no doubt that Kekec has the necessary credentials to write the book.
Although he’s lived in the lead mining districts of Missouri for many years, Kekec was born and raised in the coalfields of southeast Kansas, and is a second and third generation descendant of several of the deep shaft coal mining families of that era.
On top of that, the author is a retired instructor at Mineral Area College who holds a master’s degree from Kansas State College of Pittsburg. Kekec, an avid reader and writer, is a longtime member of several regional writer societies affiliated with the Missouri Writer’s Guild.
He describes his book as “a gripping action/adventure story” — in addition to being a deep shaft mining story.
“Two brothers get separated when one of them is accosted by some disgruntled striking miners during a mining dispute and has to go on the lam after an unfortunate triple murder in his own self-defense,” Kekec said. “He escapes the pursuing posse and makes it down river in a friend’s boat to ‘Squaw Shoals’ in Oklahoma Territory. Then, after a several days journey by wagon, makes it on down and across into the southern Missouri Ozarks.”
So, why did the author feel it important to tell the story?
“You need to preserve the memories of the past,” Kekec explained. “Historic narratives are important because they create a dialogue across the generations. I am so in resonance with what others have written about how people can be drawn in by a story and learn the history along on the journey.”
Kekec said mining families usually consisted of immigrant groups and described the camps they lived in as “primitive,” but they still found a way to make the best of what they had.
“They all stuck together,” he said.
Kekec explained that women in the camps were expected to take care of the children, do the laundry and buy fresh meat for meals. Cooking on coal-and wood-fired stoves was no easy task for them either, said the author. They even served as midwives for one another when children were born.
“They had to do it all,” Kekec said. “It was a full-time job.”
To offset the gloomy settings of the camps, weekends were a time of fun for families and an opportunity for men and women to pass the time by drinking at the local saloon.
“There was always liquor around,” Kekec said.
He added that the families also took part in another somewhat more wholesome activity — watching baseball games, along with a picnic lunch and beer.
Although Kekec has been writing essays, poems and family stories for more than 20 years, the writer said he has a special place in his heart for his new novel.
“I am happy with it now and feel that I have accomplished my goal of completing a story that is both entertaining and historically worthwhile,” he said. “It’s one that has long been bottled up inside that I have always wanted to write.”
The book is available from the publisher at www.blackrosewriting.com/historical-fiction/fire-in-the-hole and will also be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online bookstores.
E-books will be available for download in the near future in a variety of platforms.
“You need to preserve the memories of the past.” — John Kekec, author of “Fire in the Hole”
Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or firstname.lastname@example.org