Giardina, Denise 1951-
GIARDINA, Denise 1951-
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced Jahr-dee-na; born October 25, 1951, in Bluefield, WV; daughter of Dennis (an accountant) and Leona (a nurse; maiden name, Whitt) Giardina. Education: West Virginia Wesleyan College, B.A., 1973; Virginia Theological Seminary, M.Div., 1979. Politics: "Populist."
CAREER: Writer and professor. Clerk, typist, and computer operator, beginning 1974; writer, 1984–; West Virginia State University (formerly known as West Virginia State College), Charleston, WV, assistant professor in English. Hollins College, writer in residence, 1991; candidate for governor of West Virginia on Mountain Party ticket, 2000; Appalachian Writer-in-Residence, Shepherd College, 2002; licensed lay Episcopal preacher.
MEMBER: Authors Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Creative Writing Fellowships, National Endowment for the Arts, 1988, 1996; Lillian Smith Book Award, Southern Regional Council, 1992, for The Unquiet Earth; W.D. Weatherford Award, Berea College, 1992, for The Unquiet Earth, and 1987, for Storming Heaven; Appalachian Book of the Year Award, Appalachian Writers Association, 1988, for Storming Heaven; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1993, for The Unquiet Earth; Fisk Fiction Prize, Boston Book Review, 1999, for Saints and Villains.
Good King Harry, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
Saints and Villains, Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
Fallam's Secret, Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
Storming Heaven (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 1987.
The Unquiet Earth (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 1992.
The Gift Horse (teleplay), 1996.
Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Nation, Southern Exposure, and Village Voice.
SIDELIGHTS: Denise Giardina was born in West Virginia and raised among the coal mines of Appalachia. Several of her novels draw heavily on the author's personal observations of the place and its people. It is a place where the generations-old conflict between the miners and labor unions on one hand, and the mine owners and the government on the other, exists to this day. The bitterness of the ongoing struggle affects the lives of all the characters in Giardina's novels Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth. While struggle is important to Saints and Villains, it is a fictional biography of a European anti-Nazi activist. Giardina moved into more adventurous territory with Fallam's Secret, which again includes Giardina's beloved native state as a setting.
Storming Heaven is a fictional treatment of the Battle of Blair Mountain, which erupted into violence in the summer of 1921. The seeds of violence had been sown over a twenty-year period of land acquisition by the mining companies, a period in which land owners had been persuaded, by trickery according to Giardina, to part with their holdings, leaving them with only one source of income—the mines that had replaced their homes. Faced with lives of back-breaking and dangerous labor at the whim of the tight-fisted mine operators, miners sought protection from labor unions. The mine owners resisted, and the violence escalated until the United States Army was called in to restore order. Relating her story through four narrators, Giardina "has drawn authoritatively on the facts of the period and a store of inherited and first-hand knowledge," wrote Douglas Bauer in the New York Times Book Review. Her narrators include the wife of a coal miner, a nurse, a union organizer, and a socialist whose grandfather had been killed trying to preserve his rights to his land. In her choice of narrators, Giardina reveals where her own sympathies lay. Bauer criticized the author's intensity in this regard: "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." In Publishers Weekly, Giardina responded by telling interviewer Norman Oder that she "actually tamed down the mine wars."
The Unquiet Earth follows the miners of Justice County from the 1930s to recent times. "[I]t has epic scope and ambition," commented Danny Duncan Collum in the National Catholic Reporter, "and it delivers on both counts." The novel traces the miners and their descendants from World War II through President Kennedy's "war on poverty." Love binds them to the land and to each other, and their struggle for dignity and independence continues—through poverty and despair, but not without a vein of determination and an occasional glimmer of hope. Oder described The Unquiet Earth and its predecessor as "wrenching stories about families caught up in fighting or accommodating King Coal."
Saints and Villains takes the reader far from the mountains of West Virginia. This is a historical novel about the life and death of German theologian and philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In it, according to reviewer Paul Baumann in the New York Times Book Review, Giardina "displays a thorough knowledge of the historical and theological record." Bonhoeffer was raised in Berlin, a child of privilege with the means to study abroad, including a stint at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the early 1930s. When he returned to Germany, he was greatly disturbed by his observations of Nazi rule. His vocal opposition to Nazi power eventually drew Bonhoeffer into a plot against Hitler's life. The plan failed, and Bonhoeffer spent his remaining days in prison, where he was executed at the age of thirty-nine.
Giardina was attracted to the study of this martyr, she told Oder, because of "his faith, his patriotism and his loyalty to friends and family," but also because "he wasn't this plaster saint." In the Publishers Weekly interview, Giardina stressed that she wanted her book to reach the general reader—including the coal miner—without losing the depth resulting from her research and her own theological education. Giardina supplements the historical record by creating fictional characters, such as the interrogator Alois Bauer, a black minister who Bonhoeffer could have encountered during his travels in the United States, and a Jewish woman who became the philosopher's love interest. It was the fictional characters who disturbed some critics, like Baumann, who reported that they "seem like phantoms awkwardly interposed in a series of documentary photographs." Other critics focused instead on Giardina's treatment of Bonhoeffer as a man of both commitment and ambiguity. Bonnie Johnston wrote in Booklist: "Giardina … illuminates the web of moral decisions within which we all exist." Johnston recommended Saints and Villains as "compelling."
With Fallam's Secret, Giardina again wrote a historical novel, but one that was purely fiction. A time-travel escapade set in both West Virginia and England, the book follows the life and adventures of Lydde Falcone. The West Virginia-born Falcone grows up to become a theater actress in England. When she returns to her native state as a middle-aged woman for the funeral of the uncle who raised her, she ends up going back in time to seventeenth century England, finding her uncle alive, dealing with the difficulties of life under the Puritans, and falling in love with a criminal known as the Raven. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, "While this book doesn't carry the literary weight of some of her previous works, it's a captivating read."
Giardina told CA: "I am an Appalachian writer, interested in the affinities between Appalachia and other exploited places like Poland and Central America. I am also interested in writing that includes the political and spiritual dimensions of life and am not much interested in fiction that pretends these areas do not exist.
"I like to write in first person. I want the reader to live inside the skin of the characters. This is especially important since we live in a time when it is fashionable to be uninvolved in the lives and problems of other people."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 15, 1998, Bonnie Johnston, review of Saints and Villains, p. 981.
National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1993, Danny Duncan Collum, review of The Unquiet Earth, p. 33.
New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1987, Douglas Bauer, review of Storming Heaven, p. 39; April 19, 1998, Paul Baumann, review of Saints and Villains, p. 29.
Publishers Weekly, February 9, 1998, Norman Odor, interview with Denise Giardina, pp. 69-71; February 17, 2003, review of Fallam's Secret, p. 57.
West Virginia State University Web site, http://www.as.wvu.edu/ (March 31, 2003), biography of Denise Giardina.