Susan Hill, Black Sheep (Chatto & Windus 2013)
At the recent climate strike in Sydney, one of the student leaders was making the point that there needs to be a just transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. It needs to be acknowledged, she said, that mining isn’t just a job, it’s an identity, and people who worked in fossil fuel industries deserved to be thought about, not ruthlessly declared dispensable (as they were, she might have said, when Maggie Thatcher, whose grasp of climate science may have had some bearing on her shutting down the coal mines of Britain).
Black Sheep, which I borrowed at my Book Club (the book-swap one, not the discussion one), is a 135 page sketch of a family living tight inside that identity in pre-Thatcher Britain. Evie and John have five children, four sons and a daughter. John’s mother dies early in the novella, and his father moves into the already crowded cottage, bringing his black Bible with him. The boys are destined to join their father in the pit. The girl helps to service the men – cooking, cleaning, washing – and is expected to marry another pit-worker and repeat her mother’s life. Coal dust is everywhere.
It’s a grim life, and any thought of finding an alternative is seen as betrayal: ‘this is a pit family and you are one of it.’ Family coherence is strong, and when there is an explosion in the mine everyone in the community, including shepherds on the nearby hills, drops everything and runs toward the pit head, hoping to help. It’s powerful portrait of a family and a community caught in a destructive system, and keeping each other there.
It doesn’t end well, except possibly for the son, Arthur, who disappears overnight and is never heard from again. Two family members have hope: the daughter risks being ostracised by marrying a man who, though he works for the mining company, doesn’t go down the pit; and Ted, the youngest son, dreams of a different life and finds it working as a shepherd, though he too risks being ostracised. Both escape attempts fail. Both Ted and Rose are drawn back into the bosom of the family. It’s a fable about the deep injuries of class and the effects of ruthless capitalism, when even the virtues of working people contribute to their destruction.