Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
376 Pages
Reviewed on 02/22/2022
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Author Biography

I grew up in Tazewell, Virginia, in the heart of Virginia's coal country. Mingo was inspired by my childhood fascination with the Matewan Shootout and my father's connection to coal. Born in 1919 in a town whose coal deposits had played out decades before, my father's best friends were first generation Americans of Italian and Hungarian descent whose parents came to this country looking for a better life, much like the Peduzzi's in my novel. During my youth, he tried to make a living mining coal, but his big reward for years spent crawling around in coal seams too low to stand was bilateral knee replacements. John Sayles's Matewan, a movie that's rattled around in my head for several decades, also led to my interest in the coal mine wars and, ultimately, Mingo. I live, write, and practice law in Richmond, Virginia, the setting for parts of the novel.

Mingo received the Gold Medal for Southern Fiction in the 2022 International Book Award Contest and has received over 100 five star reviews on Amazon.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite

Mingo by W. Jeff Barnes takes us to the rugged mountains of West Virginia and coal country not long after the beginning of the twentieth century. Two young boys, Durwood and Bascom Matney, have just buried their mother, alongside their sister. Durwood’s father decides that he would be a lot better, for the time being, being raised in Richmond by his mother’s distant cousin and so ships the young boy off. Bascom, at fourteen, has already joined his father down the mines but Durwood must come to terms with not only living with the rich and privileged in Richmond but that he will also face peer discrimination because of his “hillbilly” background. When Bascom turns eighteen, a seminal event down the mine, when one of his friends is killed in an accident, convinces him it is time to leave mining behind and head to Richmond to catch up with his younger brother and seek his future. Whilst making a future for himself in Richmond, Bascom discovers his cousin’s family back in Mingo County are suffering greatly through a miners' strike and violent reprisals by the mine owners. He determines to head back to Mingo County to help his cousin and his family out, while Durwood, feeling abandoned again by his brother, decides to sever all ties with his family and embrace his comfortable life in Richmond. The next time the two brothers meet they will be on opposite sides of a violent event that later became known as the Matewan Massacre, where both brothers will have to decide truly where their loyalties lie; to family or to personal convictions.

Mingo is a particularly compelling familial drama that places two brothers on either side of an ideological battle. W. Jeff Barnes does a truly fantastic job of developing both these lead characters to the point where the reader struggles to choose between them and their respective viewpoints. I particularly enjoyed the depth of character the author was able to develop in these two young men and the explosive tension that was carried right through to the last page of the novel. Based on true historical events that lend this story credence and a true sense of injustice, I was totally immersed in this tale from the very opening paragraph. The author’s descriptive prose took me deep into the mountains, to a place I’d never been before, and showed me not only the beauty and the starkness of the area but also the depths of poverty and helplessness that the working man faced in early twentieth-century America, especially in the mining industry. The right to organize labor that many enjoy today partly came from the rugged fortitude and courage of these early labor pioneers such as the coal miners of West Virginia and the author is to be congratulated for highlighting their heroic struggle in this story. Stories such as this, with a basis in historical events, give the author license to examine the relationship between familial love and duty with philosophical ideals. Barnes does this superbly, presenting both entrenched sides of the debate clearly and sensibly through his characters. I thoroughly enjoyed this read and can highly recommend it.

K.C. Finn

Mingo is a work of fiction in the historical and interpersonal drama subgenres. It is suitable for the general reading audience and was penned by author W. Jeff Barnes. Set in the southern West Virginia coalfields in the early stages of the 20th century, the book follows the Matney brothers who are separated after the death of their mother. As the years go by and the boys become men, they move further and further apart in their ideals with one fighting for the rights of laborers and the other being lured by the offer of a comfortable life, until one day they find themselves on opposite sides of a deadly brewing conflict.

This book is a sweeping tale told across the years with some excellent insights into the social situation that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain and similar class tensions of the era. Author W. Jeff Barnes sets out to capture a difficult period in American history and accomplishes this with beautiful prose and the creation of Durwood and Bascom Matney – two brothers whose differences come to exemplify the two sides of the mining conflict around which the book is set. The book is filled with powerful moments in which life experiences shape the brothers into people even further apart than they had already drifted, and Mingo never wastes an ounce of the weight it carries from the historically accurate setting. Overall, Mingo is a heartfelt tale of two deep and complex characters told against the backdrop of one of the painful parts of 20th-century American history; this book is not to be missed.

Vincent Dublado

A debut novel set during the West Virginia coal wars of the early 20th century, Mingo by W. Jeff Barnes is a thought-provoking tale of two estranged brothers. Durwood Matney is six years younger than his brother, Bascom. Times are hard as Bascom and their father, Clem, work in the coal mines. After losing his wife, Clem sends the young Durwood to live with his mother’s cousin, Grace, along with her husband who works as a lawyer for a coal company in Richmond. This separation is going to become the biggest source of ideological differences between the two brothers. As Durwood lives a sheltered and privileged life, Bascom grows sympathetic to the plight of coal miners as a working class. The story culminates in the riveting Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.

In Mingo, W. Jeff Barnes details how every element of storytelling, from setting to characters, builds to a whole. From conception to execution, it becomes an exercise in literary historical fiction with a classical structure. It runs well like the course of a train on a track. In its well-drawn oppositional conflict between two brothers, your empathy could either take sides or pose as a neutral observer at the intensity of the situation. Barnes’s details on the timeline and setting lend Mingo its authenticity in the reading experience. It perfectly captures the period with that kind of mood and symbolism you find in Markham’s poem, The Man with the Hoe. Barnes presents a brilliant contrast between the American dream and harsh reality. This is must-read dramatic fiction that will remind you how life is not always fair but things can become better.

Jay Firebaugh

Excellent story - really grabbed me - felt like i was there - so real. Loved it!

Sarah Adams

Couldn't agree with you more. Your review was right on point.

Stan Wellman

Absolutely loved this debut novel by a gifted writer.