Moon's Black Gold
by R. H. Peake
Toplink Publishing, LLC

"People and things are a combination of scars and beauty."

Author Peake moves beyond the stereotypes of moonshine and poverty in the hills and hollows of Appalachia to present a more complex tapestry of human strengths and flaws in this hybridization of a suspenseful murder mystery and a Southern gothic novel. Protagonist Everett A. “Moon” Lunamin returns from his tour of duty in Vietnam to his hometown of Winding Fork, Virginia, determined to make a name for himself during the coal boom of the late 1960s, “a time when enterprising young mountain men could now make their fortunes in this region more noted for its human poverty than its mineral wealth.”

Despite his recognition of the environmental impacts, Moon founds his dream company, Lunar Mining, a surface mining endeavor. His ambition and youthful enthusiasm win the approval of his high school sweetheart, Susan, whose family considered his former hillbilly status below her. Profit begins to flow like water despite his struggles with ambitious cousins, mining competitors, government regulations, and striking miners. Ultimately, this successful quest for riches isn’t enough for Moon or Susan, and their glossy mansion life erupts into a muddy, slow-moving nightmare of indifference, false appearances, and pretend monogamy complicated by ongoing infidelity.

At the outset of the novel, the writing feels a tad uneven, and the newly unfolding tale seems a bit bumpy. The pacing is slightly mired in the protagonist’s backstory recollections that are perhaps necessary because of the broad sweep of time and the extent of family history covered. However, the high, ever-increasing tension lends some starch to any slow or saggy moments. The laser-sharp focus upon Moon’s conflicts—whether his travails with friends and relatives or his disappointments with his wife—keep the tension high and inexorably creeping toward what should be an explosive climax.

The mystery of Susan’s eventual murder and Moon’s indictment and trial feel predictable, nearly cliché and anticlimactic when revealed late in the novel, especially because a murdered woman’s mate or boyfriend is, in reality, always the primary suspect. As an innocent man with regrets about marrying above his class and regrets about his own behavior, Moon also seems almost too detached or too resigned to his predicament, not quite anguished enough to make his emotional paralysis feel compelling. But overall, the depth of characterizations and the unique setting coupled with lush prose that rises above the suspense genre breathe life and realism into the story and salvage the eventual outcome.

Peake’s evocative descriptions of the Appalachian landscape and the scars created by strip-mining in the land and the people’s souls is a feat made possible only by residence in the region. The author’s long sojourn as professor at the University of Virginia allows him a platform to provide a clear-eyed, unvarnished, and even fond look at the social structure and intimate lives of the mountain people who prefer their environment to any other, whether poor, wealthy, or somewhere in between. Readers will find the authenticity of the characters, dialogue, and the historical setting worthy of the read and equally as engaging as some established classics set in Appalachia.

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