Young Adult - Coming of Age
298 Pages
Reviewed on 03/19/2021
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Susan Sewell for Readers' Favorite

Set at the turn of the twentieth century, Topside by David Quarles is a stunning historical novel portraying the life of a young man growing up in a coal-mining town. When he was young, Jack Smith lost his father in a coal mining accident. A few years later, at the age of fourteen, Jack's mother dies, leaving him an orphan. When the mine owner gives him a job, Jack quits school and lives in an apartment owned by the mine. Taking every opportunity that arises, Jack learns different aspects of the coal mining operation, expanding his experience and deepening his connection to the coal industry. With the advent of World War One and the rise of Unions, Jack's life takes some interesting turns. With a new family and a conflict with the new union, Jack must look for work outside the area. Only knowing the coal industry, Jack is conflicted. Should he take the risk and move away from the coal mines to start over? Or can he stick it out where he is and find a way to use his life-long knowledge and experience to care for his family?

Eloquent and picturesque, Topside by David Quarles is a brilliant and stirring novel. Beautifully written, the story has an absorbing plot that triggered memories of my grandparents' recollections of their childhoods from that era. There is nothing artificial about this story; the era cues are spot on, the setting is authentic, and the characters are genuine. I loved Jack's character and enjoyed observing him grow from boyhood and mature through his adult life; it was poignant and heartwarming. With an admirable protagonist and extraordinary settings, it is a charming story that promises to enchant everyone who enjoys historical novels that accurately portray the social impacts of another time.

Heather Stockard

Jack Smith is fourteen years old when he follows his father into the coal mines in 1917. The elder Smith died when Jack was a little boy. It was an accident they said; bad air. But nobody talked about it. As soon as he is old enough, Jack’s uncle, also a miner, takes him to get a job at the mine. That is the end of Jack’s boyhood. Within a few months, Jack’s mother is dying of a fever, and he finds himself living in the company commissary and working topside as an assistant on many different projects. Over the next few years, he learns various skills, meets the woman of his dreams, and gets caught up in the war in Europe. But in the end, his fate lies underground in the dark mines. He might meet the same end as his unfortunate father, but he has a wife and expanding family to feed, and coal is all he knows.

Topside by David Quarles is a wonderful fictional account of the life of a Kentucky coal miner. It’s filled with fascinating details of life in a coal town and the risks and rewards of the mines. It’s a gritty, realistic, coming-of-age story that follows a boy as he becomes a man and raises a family. Quarles is the grandson of a coal miner, and he studied mining engineering at the University of Kentucky. His knowledge and experience infuse the book with authenticity and make this book as educational as it is enjoyable.

Edith Wairimu

Topside by David Quarles is a heartfelt historical novel that recounts Kentucky’s coal mining history. The son of a coal miner, Jack decides to quit school and follow in his father’s footsteps after his mother’s death. Jack’s father had died in the mines when his son was eight. Determined to make a living for himself, Jack begins to work in the mines during his teenage years and slowly develops a rapport with the company bosses. Despite his resolve to stay out of coal mining politics and talks regarding coal miners’ unions, he is later dragged into the conflict after a devastating shooting. His passivity is perceived as a lack of support for the miners and their cause to join a collective union.

David Quarles skillfully portrays the uncertainty of the first part of the twentieth century, the risks involved for coal miners, and the mining industry’s evolving politics at the time. Jack’s story is influenced by the Great Depression and both World Wars. The novel also includes Jack’s endearing childhood memories of his experiences in the woods, hunting with his beloved dog. Some humorous events also appear including incidences with a stubborn pony and some embarrassing scenes. In many ways, Jack is an inspiring main character. Despite enduring incredible personal loss, he works hard and makes a living during his teenage years. The novel also records important details about the history of coal mining. Topside by David Quarles is a moving coming-of-age novel that highlights the resilience of early twentieth-century coal miners.

Kimberlee J Benart

If you’re interested in historical fiction that illustrates life in Appalachia in the first half of the twentieth century, Topside by David Quarles is for you. Told through the eyes, voice, and everyday experiences of a coal miner named Jack Smith, it carries you from his orphaned teens when he began working to support himself and preferred squirrel hunting to finishing school, and leads you through the next four decades of his life as he matures in both his personal life and experience as a miner. Along the way he’ll do a stint in the army at the end of WWI, meet the love of his life, start a family, and experience the ups and downs of living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.

I thoroughly enjoyed Topside. Set against the epic backdrop of World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war years, it tells a quintessentially American story. David Quarles shines a clear light on the lives of miners and their families as they met the nation’s demand for coal while working in dangerous and demanding conditions. The story is an engaging one and the character of Jack Smith is a wonderful storyteller. He speaks in the vernacular and his words convey more than their simple meaning. You can’t read this book without gaining a tremendous appreciation for the daily struggles and fears of miners and their families and also take great pride in the legacy of the work they did and the families they came from and formed. Highly recommended.

Tammy Ruggles

Topside by David Quarles is an engrossing work of historical fiction about the coal mining lifestyle of a small Kentucky town during the Great Depression. Quarles effectively uses a first-person point-of-view to narrate this culture-based story based in an eastern Kentucky coal town, spanning the years 1900-1952. To be a coal miner at that time meant that you had a good job and could well afford to take care of your family. It was a grueling job, sometimes to be envied by those earning lower wages, but families often worried about the safety of the men and the dangers of such work. For some coal miners, it wasn't just a job, and it wasn't about the money. It was a way of life as if coal was in their very DNA. When the Depression came along, coal miners didn't escape the harsh effects on the economy. This novel opens with the lead character Jack losing his job, but his wife is actually glad that it happened. At age 52, this family man now has to find a new job, a new house, and basically start over again. Then we go back in time to his childhood, where we are introduced to his way of life, meeting his family, neighbors, and other people he knew.

Quarles presents a fascinating slice-of-life character-driven story that places you in the heart and mind of the protagonist, who learned to survive at an early age with the loss of his parents. He has an inner strength that gets him through hard times. This author spins an alluring web into the past, putting you in each scene, in the shoes of the characters. Descriptions of coal fields and trainyards make it easy to get caught up in the story, its time, and setting. I like that Quarles doesn't shy away from the devastating Depression, and readers will be amazed at the way some people survived it, while others didn't. His vivid descriptions make the rugged landscape come alive, and his meticulous descriptions of coal mining paint visceral pictures for the reader. As you read, you'll be invested in the story, but you'll also be informed of the way things were at the time. For a powerful depiction of how an eastern Kentucky coal-mining town and its people survived the Great Depression, Topside by David Quarles is a must-have for your library.