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"In These Times" Features Mark Nowak's Coal Mountain Elementary

Ian Teh CME.jpg
Photo by Ian Teh who collaborated with Mark on CME

In the June issue of In These Times, contributing editor Kari Lyderson provides a compelling analysis of Mark's new book, Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009). The following is an excerpt from Lyderson's article.

Coal Mountain Elementary is an artful, stark and slightly surreal weave of several narratives that portray the human toll of coal mining on families and communities and the way the industry is embedded in our global society, in part through highly strategic efforts like the American Coal Foundation’s curriculum.

The book is a collage of excerpts from the curriculum, testimony from the Sago disaster, news reports of mining disasters in China, and desolate yet eerily beautiful photos of Sago and of Chinese miners and mines. (The breathtaking Chinese photos are by photojournalist Ian Teh.)

The stranger-than-fiction curriculum prods students to write inspiring stories about mining company towns and teaches how to make “coal flowers”—lumps of coal adorned with paper and fabric held together by congealing ammonia, salt and “laundry bluing,” which the curriculum helpfully advises can be purchased through women’s magazines.

Nowak sees the book as his contribution to the growing debate over—and opposition to—coal’s role as a primary global energy source. Without preaching or delving into the environmental effects that are documented elsewhere, Coal Mountain Elementary shows the inherent danger and violence of the industry, and it quietly celebrates the strength and resilience of miners and their families.

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