This is my small homage to a long-out-of-print, largely forgotten coal-country novel, Those Black Diamond Men by William Futhey Gibbons.

     While researching The Breaker Boys, I learned about – and acquired – Gibbons’ 1902 book through my scientific method, the eBay search. It’s an exacting, rigorous system: Type in a key phrase – “Pennsylvania coal,” say, or “Missouri guerrillas” – and click “search.” I’ve found some of my best resources this way.

     When I’m doing the research for my historical novels, I try to avoid most modern writings. Current authors tend to put an unsettling contemporary spin on events, losing sight of the fact that society and attitudes were very different in 1897 or 1777 or 1863 than they are today. For me, it’s essential to present people in the context of their own era. So for research, I lean toward primary sources and books written at or near the time of my story.         

     I was delighted to find that Mr. Gibbons, who clearly knew his subject intimately, did not sketch cardboard cutouts of either the immigrant workers or the coal operators. Instead, he painted complex individuals who had both shortcomings and strengths – in other words, human beings.

     One of my favorite lines in the book is when one character says, “I wish when people were bad they would just be bad clear through, without having any noble streaks in them.”

     Real life, Mr. Gibbons knew, doesn’t work that way.               


Those Black Diamond Men:

A Tribute