The “Ruint” Doll: Hazel’s Loss of Innocence in Kettle Bottom
The Appalachian mining camps of the early twentieth century are a source of many difficult memories for the people affected by them. If mining is dangerous today, it was even more so then, when there were no unions and company owners had complete control over their workers. Many lives were lost, and those lives are not limited to the mine workers. The families of the workers also were involved in the struggles. Many died in the process. Thus, while the mine workers suffered, their families also dealt with a large share of the difficulties. Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom is a poetry collection that deals with this period of Appalachian history. Fisher is very interested in the effects of the mining industry on the families of the workers. In fact, the majority of the poems in the collection are from the point of view of a miner’s loved one. Within the collection, there are four poems which are all entitled “My Dearest Hazel.” They are epistolary poems sent from an unnamed woman to her sister Hazel. Children are a problem for Hazel and her husband because of the increasingly volatile struggle for miners’ rights, so she makes the decision to have an abortion when she becomes pregnant. Fisher uses Hazel’s four poems to make a strong statement about the difficulty of life for a miner’s wife.In the first poem, the writer is encouraging Hazel not to marry. Her fiancé, Turley, has begun mining. The writer’s own husband is a miner, and she wants Hazel to have a better life than her own. The speaker says that Turley “has took to [mining] like a fish to water” (Fisher 9). This simile makes a strong connection to the dependence the miners have on their companies. A fish takes to water because it cannot live without it; neither can the miners live without the company. Company owners of the time methodically indebted the miners, so that they depended on their work for the very basics of life. Without the company store’s binding credit, miners could not afford food, housing or medicine for their families. The speaker goes on to say that their father also “took to drink like a fish to water” (9). By using the same simile to describe an addiction, Fisher continues the negative implication of working in the mine. In the last three lines of the poem, the speaker says, “I’m telling you, Hazel, for the sake of your own / sweet soul, when Clayton kisses me now / I don’t taste nothing but coal” (9). The rhyming of the words “soul” and “coal” when no other rhyme exists in the poem implies an intense connection between the two words. Fisher thereby emphasizes the deadly ties between the coal and the souls of its workers. In the second of the Hazel poems, Hazel has married Turley and reveals to her sister that she is pregnant. Both women are afraid because the strikes are beginning and their world is not a safe place to raise a child. Hazel has evidently asked her sister for advice on how to abort the baby. The word “Company” (27) is capitalized, which brings about some interesting conclusions. The capitalization of a word implies importance, and surely the company is of infinite importance in the lives of its workers. It also gives the word a sense of authority and makes it appear threatening. Certainly the women who share this correspondence feel as dominated as the symbolic lowercase letters in the shadow of the company’s uppercase “C.” Later, the sister says, “them Baldwin-Felts / breaks things up when they put people out” (27). By referring to the guards simply by their company’s name, they are dehumanized. Perhaps the women can better cope with their personal tragedies if they do not put human names to the people who are causing them. The line break before the word “breaks” also helps to emphasize the destruction the guards cause when they evict striking miners from their homes. The writer ends simply by suggesting Hazel use a mixture of turpentine and sugar to abort her child. The third and most powerful poem of the Hazel series takes on a much softer tone. It seems to be a reply to a letter from Hazel asking about a doll the girls lost when they were children. The ruined toy quickly proves itself to be something more, as comparisons are drawn between the doll and the aborted baby. Hazel’s state of mind is questionable at this point, and her sister seems to be attempting to comfort her by repeatedly calling her “honey” (60). The writer remembers that the doll, named Annabelle and so given a human identity, had blue eyes like Hazel’s. The doll’s hair was made from an unraveled scarf belonging to their father. Therefore the doll is given inherited traits from its “parent” and “grandparents”, just like the aborted baby would have had. The writer goes on to explain that the doll was ruined in a mudslide after a heavy rainfall, implying that the abortion was just as uncontrollable as the mudslide. She writes that when the doll was retrieved from under the porch, “she was ruint, soaked through with mud” (60). The doll’s fate seems to question whether the child would have been similarly ruined if he/she had lived. The difficult life of the mining camps may have destroyed the child, just like the doll. Both of these comparisons seem designed to comfort Hazel, who has shifted the trauma of losing her baby to the loss of the doll. She goes on to reassure Hazel with, “it was me / left Annabelle under the porch. You hear me, honey? / Wasn’t nothing you could of done” (60). Since the speaker gave Hazel the method for aborting, she is accepting personal responsibility for the death of the baby as well as the destruction of the doll. In the final selection of the Hazel poems, the sister summarizes her life in the strike zone of the mining camps in Mingo County. She describes the violence and the people who have been killed so far on both sides of the conflict. The poem is fitting as a final wrap-up of the Hazel poems because it seems to wrap up the heartache and fear that she and Hazel have gone through in the last six lines: This whole camp is like a mine with a hollow-sounding roof, and hid up there in the mountain above us, where we can’t see it and can’t nothing hold it up, that old kettle bottom is waiting to drop. (67)This simile compares the mining camps to a mine with a petrified tree trunk about to drop through the roof and kill the miners. Like the miners, the families in the camp are faced with a sense of impending doom and a complete inability to control their own fate, which is ultimately in the hands of the company owners. It would be natural to consider the miners themselves when writing about the strikes of the early 1900s in Appalachian mining. While Fisher does this, she also takes her poetry a step further in exploring the family members and loved ones of the miners. The wives of miners had to deal with the pressures of soothing their angry and hurting husbands, stretching food far enough to feed the entire family, handling unexpected pregnancies, and always fearing the siren signalling certain death for their mining husbands. Fisher uses her “My Dearest Hazel” poems to illustrate a small part of what wives went through in the mining camps, and it is certainly true that there often “wasn’t nothing [they] could of done” (60).