Not long ago, my name was drawn for a door prize at an SCBWI event. From a table filled with dozens of literary goodies, I selected a book I’d had my eye on all weekend: The Miner’s Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas.
I had seen Gretchen’s helpful, thoughtful posts on writing and publishing on a couple of children’s lit message boards and felt certain her novel would be a terrific read.
It is. The story of Willa, a teen who lives in a West Virginia coal mine town during the Great Depression, the book has beautifully drawn characters and a strong voice that manages to be simultaneously plain-spoken and lyrical.
What strikes me most about The Miner’s Daughter, though, is the setting, the powerful sense of place and time Gretchen invokes for the reader.
How does she do it? And what can we as writers learn from her technique?
The book is narrated from a close third-person point of view, a tricky format for describing setting. Most people don’t go around reflecting on their everyday surroundings. Would Willa think about her family’s poverty and the depressed condition of her town? To an extent. But for the most part, she’d take these things for granted. She wouldn’t elaborate on, and in fact might not even realize, the depths of their poverty and the comforts they lack.
It is vital, however, for the reader to understand the effects of the Depression on Willa and her family. Gretchen effectively resolves this by setting up numerous scenes that provide a contrast to Willa’s usual surroundings.
For example, in chapter two, Willa follows her brother to the top of the mountain they live on and looks down the other side: Here, the earth had been left as it had always been. There was no smoldering slag pile; no houses stacked one on top of the other like ladder rungs.
We are given a window into Willa’s world through her perception of what lies outside that world.
Gretchen uses a literal window in chapter three, when Willa goes to the town doctor’s home to seek help for her pregnant mother: Through the large picture window, Willa could see the doctor and his wife sitting down to supper. Tall white candles burned, making the silver cutlery and white china sparkle. Worried as she was, Willa could only stare at the beauty of the table. She stood there … looking first at the roasted chicken and stuffing, and then at the short, lacy dress the doctor’s wife wore.
As a final example (and there are many), Gretchen uses a fictional world to draw a contrast. In chapter seven, Willa and a missionary who has come to town read Little Women together: So much of the world of Little Women was strange to Willa. “You mean you never had presents at Christmas?” Miss Grace asked after they read a passage about the March girls finding gifts beneath their pillows. Willa shook her head.
Setting is for me one of the most difficult elements of writing. I admire Gretchen’s technique of depicting the main character’s reactions to contrasting surroundings as a way to illuminate her everyday existence.