Last November, I was scouting Christian fiction at Barnes & Noble, and pulled a volume called “Levi’s Will” from the shelf. The premise looked interesting – a young Amishman runs away from his family in Ohio during World War II, and his rejected heritage shapes him the rest of his life. The novel was written by C. Dale Cramer, the third of his four published works.
Cramer drew on some of his own family history, and the life of his father, to create the novel. I was captivated. It’s a great story, well characterized and well plotted. The writing is exceptionally fine. And if I substituted “Southern Baptist” for “Amish,” and north Louisiana for Ohio, I was reading the history of my own black sheep father and, by extension, myself.
“Bad Ground” is Cramer’s second novel. He scored well deserved acclaim for “Sutter’s Close,” his first published work, and “Bad Ground” lived up to expectations (a lot of second novels don't). It’s a story about mining, and it doesn’t take the reader long to figure out that while it’s a work of fiction, the mining details are too realistic and too precise for this not to reflect the author’s personal experience.
The story is about Jeremy Prine, a 17-year-old boy whose father died years before in a mining accident and whose mother has recently died from breast cancer. Before she dies, his mother gives him a letter, telling him to go to his Uncle Aidan, because the uncle has something only he can give to Jeremy, and Jeremy has something that he can only give to Aidan.
Aidan is a miner near Atlanta, and he bears the physical scars of a terrible mining accident, the same accident that killed Jeremy’s father. Aidan has not seen family for more than a decade, because the emotional scars are worse than the physical ones. He's known to his fellow miners as Snake, because of obvious physical reminders of skin grafts. Aidan's blocked the emotional pain by isolation and alcohol. And then Jeremy shows up at the mining office, lies about his age, and signs on as a yard worker.
How Jeremy and Aidan come to understand each other and ultimately love each other is the heart of “Bad Ground.” It’s a fine story, a beautiful story, about the pain and joy of family, and the pain and joy of forgiveness.