‘Honey from the Lion’ tells ‘America’s shadow story’

Logging, profiteering fuel taut tale set in turn-of-the-century West Virginia

In his sweeping and tautly written debut novel, Matthew Neill Null presents a decade in the lives of loggers working in the mountains of turn-of-the-century West Virginia. The story takes place during a time when thousands of acres of old-growth trees are being systematically clearcut by “timber wolves” who risk life and limb, working for a handful of absentee lumber barons who see their employees as mere columns on a ledger.

Null explained the origins of the book in an author’s note: “I wanted to write America’s shadow story — the characters popular history crops from the frame,” he said. “We know the tools workers used, and where they lived, but their fear and desire, their complaints and their jokes, often go unrecorded.”

These workers spring to life in “Honey from the Lion,” a beautifully understated examination of the rugged brotherhood of the underdog and the volatile trust and faith that sustain it, and of a particularly American breed of profiteering that exploits and destroys, yet can never kill the spirit of a place.

The prologue introduces a trio of Union soldiers during the first year of the Civil War, as they survey the lush forests surrounding a mountain in western Virginia: a hundred miles of red oak, chestnut, pines, spruce, a fallen tree “as long as seven train cars.” After the war, the three return to buy up the land, form the Cheat River Paper & Pulp company and establish the Blackpine logging camps.

By 1904, Cur Greathouse, a local man on the run from a family scandal, has found steady work at Blackpine and a new family. As he learns the art of felling trees and wins the trust of the men around him, Cur finds himself drawn into the Woodworkers Brotherhood’s plans for an uprising — one that the absentee bosses have been anticipating for some time and that their spies are making every attempt to thwart.

Reminiscent of Tim Gautreaux’s “The Clearing,” Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams,” or even John Sayles’ film, “Matewan,” this is history-as-fiction at its best. A fluid narrator, inhabiting each character in turn, unifies and foreshadows the events, sawing backward and forward in time, holding back just enough to maintain the suspense. Mistaken identities, espionage, double-crosses, police corruption, gilded-era fat cats scheming from afar, hatchet men penetrating the union ranks like ninjas — it’s all here in a tightly plotted story that often reads like a thriller.

A cast of fully realized characters fleshes out life in the Blackpine camp: skilled sawyer Asa Neversummer, who takes Cur under his wing and feeds him union doctrine; union headman Vance Church and his surly son Amos, rumored to have bombed an “industrialist’s parlor” in Ohio; explosives expert Leo Caspani; and teamster Vaughn McBride, said to be a man whose horses “could pull the moon from the sky and stomp it ugly.”

In the town below, we meet Slovenian widow Zala Kovač, the woman in Cur’s life, and the Brotherhood’s dynamite supplier and spy; Lis Grayab, a Syrian peddler and liaison between various parties inside and out of the union; and Luke Seldomridge, a disillusioned but visionary preacher, who’ll play an unwitting role in bringing about the book’s violent climax. At one point, even a mountain lion becomes a character, yet another relic of a swiftly vanishing world.

Null commands the language of a bygone place and time in prose as eloquent and precise as poetry. Some of the novel’s most exquisite passages evoke the beauty of Virginia’s old forests: “The earth smelled of rain and ferns… Hemlocks and red spruce strained above him and vanished into a green oblivion. Sunless dark and the odd javelin of light.” Others offer lovely sepia impressions of the rude, new town of Helena: “The rows of white clapboards clutched slopes like billy goats, slaty trills of smoke curling from stovepipes.”

A native West Virginian whose family has been in western Virginia since “before it was a state,” Null knows the land and its history, from his workers’ clothing — “Cutter boots mended with baling twine, canvas pants thick as sailcloth, chambray work shirts, Big Dad suspenders, and scarred felt hats” — to the native lore of woods and weather: “The moon stood in its halo of ice. Four stars blazed in its white hoop, so he knew how many rough days of weather to expect.”

“Honey from the Lion” offers a complex portrait of the impact of long-ago robber-baron practices that today have returned with equal or greater force. The title, taken from a biblical riddle — and a recurring theme throughout the book — underscores the greed that wiped out an entire ecosystem in a shockingly short space of time: “They tore sweetness out of that rough place. They wrestled it down and made it give…. By Theodore Roosevelt’s second term, the timber logged out of West Virginia could reach the moon and back twice over.”

For the lumberjacks of Blackpine who ride the back of this wild destruction and inadvertently conspire with men who “emptied their world like a jug,” that triumph may be all that’s left when the forest runs out and only a “mutilated sea” remains. “We’ll be remembered,” boasts one of the camp’s veterans, “just like the Egyptians, a-building mighty pyramids block by block.” His friends laugh. But with this reverent, accomplished tribute, Matthew Neill Null ensures they won’t be forgotten.

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