Guide to Resources for the Study of West Virginia Authors and Appalachian Literary Traditions

Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library

map of the appalachians

Denise Giardina

photo of Denise Giardina taken from the web

Biographical Information

Today there are once more saints and villains. Instead of the uniform grayness of the rainy day, we have the black storm cloud and brilliant lightning flash. Outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Shakespeare's characters walk among us. The villain and the saint emerge from primeval depths and by their appearance they tear open the infernal or the divine abyss from which they come and enable us to see for a moment into mysteries of which we had never dreamed.

This quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics gave Denise Giardina the title for her fourth novel, a fictionalized account of Bonhoeffer's life, but it could also be applied to the general body of Giardina's fiction, worlds where good and evil are not abstract concepts or relative ideas, but realities personified.
Denise Giardina grew up in the Black Wolf Coal Camp in McDowell County, West Virginia. Her slightly elevated social position--her mother was a nurse and her father a low-level mine manager--along with her 1960s social consciousness led to political conflicts with the people and culture around her. Even from an early age she was drawn to the tradition of storytelling--the oral literary heritage of the mountains. She attended West Virginia Wesleyan College, graduating with a history degree in 1973. Seeking purpose and direction, she worked as a hospital clerk and then took the LSAT. But instead of law school, Giardina entered Virginia Theological Seminary and, ordained as an Episcopal deacon in 1979, she returned to a church in the area where she'd grown up. Her earlier political conflicts with the coal culture soon reappeared, though, and she left less than a year later after a clash with superiors over her criticisms of coal companies. She moved to Washington, DC and worked as part of a peace campaign. It was during this period in her life that she began work on her first novel, Good King Harry, a fictionalized, first-person biography of England's legendary Henry V. She then returned to West Virginia, spending time in rural areas before taking a job as a congressional aide in Charleston. Harry was finally sold to Aaron Asher at Harper & Row, who published the novel in 1984.
After Good King Harry, Giardina turned her attention and her writing to her West Virginia roots, something she had avoided earlier for fear of being dismissed as a "regional writer." Her next two novels, Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth, tell the heartbreaking stories of families who fight or accommodate the power of coal and the coal companies in their lives. Each novel contains the stories that make up the history of the mountains, including strikes, mine disasters, and the Battle of Blair Mountain. The stories are written in regional dialect, using multiple narrative personae.
After studying with novelist Laurel Goldman at Duke University, Giardina became confident of her ability to teach writing to others. She began teaching at West Virginia State College, located near Charleston. It was here that she began work on Saints and Villains [published 1998], her retelling of the story of German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his part in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Giardina's Bonhoeffer is a human saint, one who "struggles with his faith, his patriotism, and his loyalty to friends and family targeted by the Nazis."
Denise Giardina continued her protests of the power of coal and coal companies in West Virginia during the 2000 political campaigns, running for governor of West Virginia as the candidate for the Mountain Party. Though she lost the election to Democrat Bob Wise, Giardina's campaign helped to bring issues such as mountain-top removal, absentee ownership of land and resources, and taxation of major corporations into the public eye and into the election discussions.

In 2003, Giardina's work took on a new twist when she published Fallam's Secret, which, was Brenda Anderson remarked in BookPage, "features time travel, an orphaned heroine and a love story punctuated by sex—lots of sex." It is the story of a West Virginia woman who has been living in England but who returns home because she believes a favorite uncle has died. Once back in West Virginia, she encounters the Mystery Hole, and begins an adventure in love, family, and time travel. Giardina has hinted that the book is the beginning of a new series, so perhaps we will have more of Lydde's adventures to come.

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Critical Responses

Though she has published works set in other times and places, it is the stories she has woven about the West Virginia mine wars---the struggles of the people of the mountains to survive the changes wrought by the coming of the coal companies and the power of "mineral rights"---that have garnered Denise Giardina national critical attention. Her two "Appalachian" novels, Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth, are critical of the power of the coal companies (and the politicians who empowered them) and lift up the struggles of the miners for union recognition and human rights as a kind of holy war -- a fight to reclaim the inheritance of a people from those who have conquered and degraded it. Some critics have accused Giardina of being melodramatic in her portrayals of the miners, the mine bosses, and the mine guards; Douglas Bauer of The New York Times commented that "one senses in the prose such an urgency to draw, in black and white, the operators' villainy and the miners' heroism that each side becomes a caricature." But others, including Giardina herself, speaking to an interviewer from Publishers Weekly, have responded by saying that the novels in fact do not offer the full violence and inhumanity of the mine wars, an event often erased from American history books -- even, perhaps especially, those in West Virginia. Writing in The National Catholic Reporter, Danny Duncan Collum comments about The Unquiet Earth:

These [the miners] are her people and she does right by them. Her vision of their suffering and exploitation is clear and unwavering. But so is her vision of their love for the mountains and their community, and their determination to defend both against the neocolonialists of the coal industry.

Critics have also praised the power of Giardina's prose and story-telling abilities, of the pull that her works exert, drawing into not only the characters time and place, but into heart and mind as well. Reviewing Saints and Villains in Sojourners, one critic remarked

If you want the definitive chronicling of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life, read Eberhard Bethge's biography, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But if you want to immerse yourself in the flesh-and-blood grapplings of faith and conscience that confront believers in any age -- and enjoy a well-told yarn in the process -- check out Giardina's novel.

In The Unquiet Earth, one character remarks that real writers don't come from West Virginia -- "Real writers live in New York apartments to sit at sidewalk cafes in Paris." With the power of her work, and the national attention she has brought, not only to herself but to her state, Denise Giardina has proven that "real" writers can live anywhere, and do anything that they believe in.

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Works Published


Good King Harry
Storming Heaven
The Unquiet Earth
Saints and Villains
Fallam's Secret

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Selected Bibliography

Billings, Dwight B. et al, eds. Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes: Backtalk from an American Region. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1998.
Boudreau, Tim. Fighting Back: Denise Giardina Talks about Storming Heaven. Now and Then. 5:1, Spring 1988. pp.9-10.
Brown, W. Dale. Denise Giardina. IN Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk about Their Vision and Work. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.
--. True Stories: A Conversation with Denise Giardina. Carolina Quarterly. 47:1, Fall 1994. pp. 40-51.
Conway, Cecelia. Slashing the Homemade Quilt in Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven. NWSA Journal. 11:3, Fall 1999. pp. 138-56.
Douglass, Thomas. Denise Giardina. Appalachian Journal. 20:4, Summer 1993. pp. 384-93.
Giardina, Denise et al. Getting the Message: three personal encounters with media and meaning. Christianity and Crisis. 51:16-17, Nov. 18, 1991. pp. 348+.
Giardina, Denise. Coalfield Violence: myths and realities. Christianity and Crisis. 49:11, August 14, 1989. pp.229+.
Green, Jordan. Writing with Class: An Interview with Denise Giardina. Southern Exposure. 25:3/4, 1997. pp. 40+.

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Author Website

none available
West Virginia Wesleyan College

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