The Savages lived two houses down from us on our dead-end street in Blacksburg, Va. I never knew Lon Savage well because when you’re a kid, adults only seem to enter your life when they yell at you (the Savages didn’t), when they’re your teachers (the Savages weren’t), or when they give you Halloween candy (the Savages did; I don’t remember what they handed out, but I know it must have been decent because we never skipped their house).
The Savages’ kids were older than we were, so they were our babysitters rather than our friends. Ellen taught me how to draw pictures of girls with dark bangs and long dresses before she graduated from high school. Then she handed us down to her sister, who graduated and handed us down to her brother. Then we didn’t need babysitting anymore and eventually my parents moved away from our dead-end street. I ran into Lon Savage years later, after I had graduated from college and started working for The Roanoke Times. He had been a journalist, too, he told me, and I was finally old enough to wonder how the heck that could have possibly escaped me. He was also a historian, working with the Salem Museum in his retirement. But I didn’t know how good of a historian or journalist he was until this month.
I’d been doing some research for my middle-grade novel when I came across a book that had been cited in bibliography after bibliography: Thunder in the Mountains, the West Virginia Mine War, 1920-1921. The author? Lon Savage. The book was first written in the 1970s, when the Savages were in that green house just up the street, but it came out again in the early 1990s, with a forward by director/author John Sayles, who’d used it as a reference when he was filming Matewan.
I don’t know what I would have asked Lon Savage when I was 6 or 8 or 12. There are plenty of questions I’d have for him now, though, if he were still alive. But that’s the thing about a good book: Even when you’re gone, you can still grip people and surprise them and educate them; you can still answer questions, from a young girl or an old girl, because you wrote it all down. The bibliography for Thunder in the Mountains goes on for miles, so there’s plenty more reading I can do – suggestions and guidance from an old neighbor, who seems to have become one of my teachers after all.