At first glance, Maris Lawyer’s The Blue Line Down may read like a story of ends and dead-ends – union-busting urchins forced to flee their home and repay a debt they accrued in their escape, mountain folks too poor to seek a vocation other than moonshining – yet the book uses those conclusions to reveal itself as a tale of new beginnings. Not just for Lawyer making her literary debut, but also for her characters as they search for a place in life that doesn’t have them treat the world as a gladiatorial arena in which “years go by with so few [happy] moments to think back on.”
Set in 1920s Appalachia, The Blue Line Down follows Jude Washer, who spends his early life with his brother Willis and alcoholic father in a Virginian village near “the black maw of the [coal] mines.” Things take a turn for the treasonous when Willis dies from paternal abuse, causing Jude to rat his father and unionizing friends out to the mining town’s overseer — netting the boy a place in the union-busting Baldwin-Felts Agency.
Upon witnessing fellow agent Harvey Morgan — “the kind of kid you’d expect to find pitching hay or cleaning horseshoes” — save animals and families during a raid, Jude breaks away from the Baldwin-Felts mid-fight, but not before Harvey’s wounded by a zealous agent for his and Jude’s treachery. The boys go south, fleeing to South Carolina, only to be caught by bootleggers — Bishop, Monty, Lebo, and Warby — and forced to work off the debt they accrued from wasting cognac on treating Harvey’s wounds. From this trial, Jude learns to eschew single-minded self-preservation and instead bond with others with qualities the Baldwin-Felts lacked: dignity and openness.
Lawyer doubles down on the importance of openness in the Appalachian Mountains, where fenced-in surroundings amplify people’s fear of the Other. The Baldwin-Felts wantonly “head to coal mines to shoot at people and chase them out of their homes,” the outfit’s leader Bradshaw saying that there’s “no place for heroes at Baldwin-Felts, only fighters.” Bootlegging vulture Teague leverages the mountain folks’ poverty to fuel his business and create dependence on him, to the point where he “ain’t shy about using a gun” to protect his territory, i.e. clients. With its focus on folks’ clinginess to mere bodily survival, The Blue Line Down targets the shaky and shady underpinnings of dishonest living one must let go of, lest they render themselves insensitive to reality via numbing violence and drinking.
This drive to blind oneself to reality’s injustices also results in one’s inner woes taking center stage, making them harder to ignore, let alone manage and act upon. Jude’s challenged by Lebo to think about whether Jude would’ve abandoned Harvey during the union-busting raid had he thought straight and Harvey “kept his nerve during the raid, hadn’t said [stupid] things” in front of the Baldwin-Felts. Through these moments of internal struggles that can beget external battles, Lawyer calls out the dangers of fearing one’s innermost self and smothering it with material mayhem.
Just as suppressed feelings can be channeled into wrongdoing, so too can they be leveraged for doing good. Bishop levels with his partners about switching to a more honest trade and better helping the local community, “poor and proud, and unwilling to leave the land.” Jude orders Teague to leave the land following the latter’s unsuccessful raid on Jude’s bootlegging friends, knowing that “someone else in [Teague’s] gang’s just going to hop back up and take [Teague’s] place” should Jude choose execution. Coupled with the brisk pacing that moves the characters along on their journey to self-redemption, the novel’s moments of truth hardly fade from the readers’ and characters’ memories, constantly reminding them of the need to build better selves.
As beneficial as the pacing is to the sense of urgency that the cast bears on their search for belonging and peace, it can also keep the narrative from slowing down and giving the characters time to reflect. Aside from moments of downtime such as Jude and Harvey sheltering in a barn during their escape, and Lebo sharing his woes about not being able to admire nature due to his fast-paced bootlegging, The Blue Line Down — like the Appalachian boonies — seldom cuts Jude and his allies some slack, highlighting how folks can get carried away by the heat of the moment.
At 216 pages, The Blue Line Down parallels Jude’s lean and mean physique and character — unafraid to get coal-mine dirty, nimbly moving from one order of business to the next, and revealing spirit through action. Lawyer highlights how people can rise above the cutthroat cycle of material accumulation and territorial control that keeps folks stubborn and, in the words of Tennessee Ernie Ford, “another day older and deeper in [moral] debt.” It makes for a hole that may be hard to crawl out of, but only if one doesn’t reach out to others and have enough faith in their hand that they’re willing to gamble. And with a fellow ex-union buster and four bootleggers to bond with, one can climb quite far.
The Blue Line Down
By Maris Lawyer
Hub City Press
Published June 22, 2021