The Sky Was Always Underground

Jonathan Graham


I scream red . . . for a secret passage to air: Willow Grove Mine cries out in a poem in the aftermath of a gaseous explosion that claimed the lives...

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I scream red . . . for a secret passage to air: Willow Grove Mine cries out in a poem in the aftermath of a gaseous explosion that claimed the lives of 72 coal miners, devastating a community in Southeastern Ohio for decades.  Jonathan Graham includes this poem in his 140-page hybrid lyric memoir of Appalachia.

Inspired by a dream in which his deceased father tunnels his way to him from the tomb of Willow Grove, the author recounts being raised in an ethnic enclave of immigrant Slovak coal miners, several of whom, including two uncles, lost their lives in the mining catastrophe. Elegiac and focused, the compilation promises poetry and short prose to chronicle the author’s family and a handful of characters living nearby in the mid-20th Century.

After the catastrophe, Willow Grove had a stranglehold on the region, elucidated by the essence-seeking nature of Graham’s lyric writing. Like violin music wafting from an Appalachian mineshaft on a hillside, verse draws the ear and mind of the reader into the imagination of the book.

As a whole, the collection laments a time, a region, a culture of hard-working, land-loving Appalachians who celebrate and grieve together, who struggle against the odds to succeed, overcoming poverty and tragedy to create better lives for themselves.  Too, the stories lament a land ravaged by mining, and the land’s dream of healing.


The Sky Was Always Underground is a lyric memoir of a life lived in the aftermath of the second most deadly mine explosion in Ohio history.  We use statistics to distance ourselves for such events, but statistics say nothing about shattered lives, keening wives, and survival guilt.  Jonathan Graham picks up the pieces of a lost world.  Some seem like shards of stained glass from a bombed cathedral, while others more like broken beer bottles, but he celebrates them all, saints and sinners alike, in the haunted foothills of Appalachia.”—R.C. Wilson, Editor “Edith Chase Poetry” and Last Exit Press. Author of A Street Guide to Gary, Indiana: A Post-Industrial Ghost Story (1980, Shelley’s Press, Kent, Ohio).

 “This collection moves me deeply with its tender intimacy amid revelations of an important era of United States history—20th Century coal mining in Appalachia—and the tentative grace of an immigrant community.  The struggle of immigrants to survive hardship and profound loss is preserved here in a hybrid memoir that is compelling to read from beginning to end.  I am glad that Jonathan did eventually leave the dying town where he grew up, a town of poisoned waters, and yet kept his love and respect for his family who built it.  Also—what a group of fascinating characters!”—Carol D Guerrero-Murphy, Ph.D., author of Tablewalking at Nighthawk, Chained Dog Dreams, Bright Path Dark River.

 “Jonathan Graham has the uncanny ability to transport the reader directly into his remembrances of Appalachia with both his poetry and his prose.  His easy-going lyrical style introduces us intimately to his family, the coal mines, and life in general from this unique part of the country. Leaning heavily on his love of nature, he gently captures the vivid sounds, sights and feelings that in turn, capture the reader’s heart.  Here you can enjoy a feast of beautiful words gleaned from beautiful memories.”—Lee Elliott, journalist and teacher. Her work can be found in Reader’s Digest, Parents, and Grit, among many others.

 “From the land of James Wright comes another voice infinitely versed in the coal mine of language and its char of family legacy caught in the shafts and slag heaps of the mine.  Weighted beneath the ash of the Willow Grove Mine explosion in 1940, Poet/Doctor Jonathan Graham’s lyric memoir of an Ohioan childhood is a beautiful memoriam to the dead and to the living, to the (butterfly) wing dust that dries on the finger, and to what most certainly here is the flower of a “coal child” opening its “bounty” of a faraway world.”—Kathryn Winograd, Ph.D. Author of Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, and This Visible Speaking: Catching Light Through the Camera’s Eye.  

 “Throughout The Sky Was Always Underground, Jon Graham’s fresh voice makes vivid the landscape of his youth: the Czechoslovakian immigrant enclave of Midway, just 40 houses, all the fathers coal miners.  For nearly 150 pages of rich lyricism and immersive prose, Graham’s deep affection for his people and this place emanates from the page.  He invites readers to become rooted deeply, too, to share communion wine at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church; to fish for mudsuckers from train trestles above Big Wheeling Creek; and, most poignantly, to grieve all the loss inflicted by the Willow Grove Mine explosion.”—Ted Lyons, Ph.D. Kent State University English/Creative Writing Professor.

“Jon Graham, hummingbird, has retrieved the nectar. The grief of Willow Grove Mine and the love of Vera Troyanovich, the sweet delights of youth holing up in the train tunnel and skating the deadly ice, the destruction of land and water and men. The decrepit survivors. The artist recreates his noble origins, out of ditches and red dog gravel.”—James De Monte, Ph.D.  Author of Where Are Your People From? and Brotherhood.

by Jonathan Graham
Page Count: 154
Trim Size: 6 x 9
Publish Date: January 2, 2024
Imprint: Catamount Press
Genre: Literary / Short Stories

POETRY / Subjects and Themes / Death, Grief, Loss
POETRY / Subjects & Themes / Animals & Nature
FICTION / Small Town & Rural

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Rose Olinski Lollathin

The coal miners of the Willow Grove Mine.....I was born in 1949, so I don"t reme...mber too much of the explosion, but I do remember when I was in grade school my best girlfriend"s dad had lost both of his legs...I remember seeing him in the wheelchair when I was at her house,,back then that was terrible to see...My sister who is 6yrs. older than me told me that her father-in-law had traded shifts with another coal miner that day, but he dad was a coal miner, but he didn"t work at the Willow Grove Coal mine......I remember in grade school and high school riding the school bus past the site of the explosion...that is about all I remember....I was born and raised in Willow Grove until I was 18 yrs. of age...