You know you're having an unusual reading experience when an hour or so into a novel it suddenly dawns on you that you've been utterly captivated by, of all things, the inner workings of a hard-rock mine. But that's what happens with BAD GROUND, which in July deservedly won the Christy Award for a contemporary novel released in 2004. W. Dale Cramer is such a marvelous writer that he manages to appeal to both male and female readers --- no mean feat in the general market and a nearly impossible one in the gender-targeted world of CBA fiction.
With nothing but a duffel bag and $63 to his name, 17-year-old Jeremy Prine sets out from Tennessee to find his Uncle Aiden, who disappeared from the family radar screen a decade earlier after an accident in which he was disfigured and Jeremy's father was killed. All Jeremy knows is that his uncle works in a hard-rock tunnel for a company in Atlanta, which is where Jeremy heads the day after his mother's funeral. His quest is less his than his mother's; in a letter she wrote before she died --- and that Jeremy read after she died --- she urges him to do whatever it takes to find his uncle. Teenager that he is, he hitchhikes and walks until he finds the man who is now known as Snake.
You can pretty well assume that with a name like Snake, this guy isn't exactly elated when Jeremy appears at his work site. But the kid is family, and even though he'd rather forget the family and everything his nephew represents, Snake takes him in and gets him a job with the tunneling operation. It's dangerous and gritty work that's tough on even the coarse, grizzled miners who have been at it for years; for a young guy like Jeremy, who was reared by his mother in a sheltered environment, the mine represents an alien world in which he must somehow find his way. It doesn't help, given the rough lives and language of the miners, that Jeremy is openly Christian. Or maybe it does.
What Cramer does with that story line is nothing short of extraordinary. You think you know where the story is going, but that's not where it goes. You try really hard not to like Snake, but you can't help yourself. You're so sure that Jeremy's faith is going to intrude on an otherwise wonderful book, but it never does. And you don't know a thing in the world about mining, but you get all wrapped up in the technical descriptions, and you decide, despite your ignorance, that it all rings true. Most of all, you are astonished that such a delicate story can be told in such a harsh setting.
Cramer creates a richly textured and highly detailed world in which three-dimensional people work and play, love and hate, ignore each other and interact with each other. I'm telling you, these people are real. I know each and every one of them, and I'm guessing you do too --- even if, like me, you've never been near the kind of environment they live in. The author clearly knows human nature and knows it well.
Bottom line: Cramer is a brilliant writer, positively brilliant. This is one of those novels that makes you utter those words every author longs to hear: "You've got to read this book."
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on July 1, 2004