Recently a person-on-the-street survey found that not everyone in America knows there are 50 states. Some think New Mexico is not a state but part of Mexico. It’s easy to make fun of something “everybody knows” when they don’t, but there is something troubling about such a profound lack of awareness.
The interplay between what people know, what they think they know, and what they don’t know at all forms the basis of two works that could not seem more different. A closer look, however, suggests that the ideas that unite them—awareness and freedom—are shared regardless of superficial backgrounds.
Free Guy (2021) stars Ryan Reynolds as a non-player character in a massive video game. As a sub-genre called action comedy, this film is reminiscent of Zootopia (2016): serious allegations amid humorous action. Both feature other characters involved in conspiracies. Guy repeats the same day, a trope used in such films as Groundhog Day (1993), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Dr. Strange (2016). He gains self-awareness when he accidentally shoots the bank robber who arrives daily where he works as a teller. Putting on his sunglasses, Guy discovers that the world is not what it appears.
The conflict involves the exploration of corporate greed; the programming code for the game was stolen by Antwan (Taika Waititi), CEO of Soonami. He plans to replace it with a second version but has never given original credit to Millie Rusk/Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer). It isn’t immediately clear to the programmers that Guy is sentient, so thinking he is a rogue player, his presence diverts from the new launch. Guy has no idea what his reality is until Millie/Molotov Girl explains it to him. A battle ensues, Antwan sends avatars to destroy him, and Guy goes about telling the other NPCs that they have choices. In one scene he changes his coffee shop order, or tries to, horrifying the barista. Spoiler alert: Things work out, as happens when the word “comedy” inhabits the genre.
Cleudis Robbins grew up a child of the mining culture in Harlan County, Kentucky. His step-father was killed in a cave-in, and the family suffered after that, with his mother Guynith struggling to support seven children. The stories from those years culminated in a novel, The Burying Man, which Cleudis finished in 2012 with his daughter, Janene Nielsen, just before his unexpected death. And the work is a novel, with all the art, structure, and theme that it suggests, rather than a memoir. (Available on Amazon and Kindle; see Goodreads.)
The Burying Man does, indeed, have much to do with death. The epigraph: “Whatever you tell yourself by an open grave or fireside, the dead do not sleep, are not at rest and, above all, are not gone.” The opening lines of this first-person narrative come from Rose Grace, nicknamed Bud: “My daddy always said that death is just like opening a door—but it ain’t, you know. Death is more like a curtain that gets finer and finer until suddenly, with your last breath, you realize Heaven is all around you and it always has been.” Bud begins this story as a ghost herself, though it’s not until near the end of the novel that we understand what happened to her. As with the film, this isn’t a new technique. A deceased narrator works in The Lovely Bones and (spoiler alert) The Sixth Sense (1999). Somehow, because of the richness of the story, its power and detail, even a child’s death is forgotten until confirmation when her father finds her body.
The setting is a Kentucky mining community around the fictional Emerita Coal Mining Camp during the 1930s. Bud’s father, Oakley Grace, lost his father in a mining accident when he was a boy. He, too, has a nickname, Mournful. The seventh son of a seventh son, he has the power of seership but also of healing and preaching. He marries young and in the course of the novel loses all his family. There is an inevitability about his fate even apart from his name. The authors conclude the book with a list of hundreds of men who lost their lives in Harlan County mines from 1913-1939, so there is a feeling that Mournful not only preaches their funerals but encapsulates the sorrows of all those lives.
Besides the father and daughter, two other characters are carefully drawn. Keziah Grimwood lives back in the mountains, coming down only rarely when she senses Mournful’s needs. A member of a small ethnic group called Melungeons, she seems to have access to all sorts of folk wisdom. Her age? “Between 35 and 60.” Her complexion? She has “a dark pool of a face.” Her eyes? The color of Virginia bluebells. Her ways are based on a view of the world informed by layers of mystical understanding. When dressing Mournful’s father for burial, she sings the words of one hymn to the melody of another, “It keeps the bad spirits guessing.” The title above is based on a phrase that reflects her kind of knowledge. Over and over throughout the novel, we hear “’cause everyone knows…” In the father’s funeral preparation, for example, Keziah stops the clock so that no one else in the home will perish.
The villain of the novel, Cork Markham, begins as a bully in childhood but a friend “of sorts” to the young Mournful. Their lives were worlds apart. Cork’s father was the mine company’s superintendent. As time goes on, he progression into evil reveals a profound lack of character. Greed and lust motivate his actions toward Mournful’s family as well as the rest of the camp. But he’s neither simplified nor cartoonish, making him a remarkable study in how not to be. Everyone knows this, too, and they either fear him or take his hush money.
The crisis in the novel concerns the coming of unions. Unsafe mining practices were one thing. Another was the system of scrip for payment. Miners did not receive pay. Instead, there was a voucher system which gave them access to the company store and housing the company owned. Cash was almost non-existent. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s rendition of “16 Tons” has the lyric “St. Peter don’t call me ‘cause I can’t go—I owe my soul to the company store.” It was a long struggle that began in 1890. This brief history from the union’s website includes information about Harlan County. We may feel long removed from the miners’ struggles and only vaguely aware of what conditions were, yet it is barely 100 years since laws attempting to limit the ages children could work in mines were designed, and widespread observance of the laws didn’t begin until the 1930s.
These two works, so superficially dissimilar, have in common the lack of freedom for the characters within them. Guy and his friends are living in blissful ignorance…until they’re not. Mournful Grace has no real chance to leave his world either but is keenly aware of all the pain that causes those he loves. The world of computer gaming is, sadly, much more relatable to our day, but when we see the pictures of children in mineshafts a mile below the surface, we should not forget those realities either.
Free Guy is clever and makes for an enjoyable escape. The Burying Man offers a serious exploration written so beautifully, so poetically, that the stories will resonate long after the last page is read. The events are based on real events but not limited by them. Little Bud’s life on earth ends tragically, but she gives hope of more to come, of love that continues, and of the purpose of struggle.