Chapter 16
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Nothing Left to Lose

A Sky for Us Alone, the debut YA novel by Nashville author Kristin Russell, portrays a struggling coal-mining community

A Sky for Us Alone, the debut YA novel by Nashville author Kristin Russell, opens on Harlowe Compton’s eighteenth birthday, an event he celebrates at a nearby pond with his friends and family. It’s a wonderful summer day in the country. It’s also the last time Harlowe will see his older brother, Nate, alive.

Photo: Heidi Ross

Both Nate and the boys’ father work for the local coal mine, owned by Strickland County business mogul Amos Prater. Prater is a powerful and controversial figure—a creator of jobs in this depressed mountain community, though he has little concern for the people he employs, much less for the mountains themselves. Harlowe describes the damage Prater’s company has inflicted on the landscape: “I stopped walking where the trees opened, and looked down across our valley. To the right lay the mines and two big swaths of brown rock where the mountain had been cut clean into for the coal beneath it. They were each almost a mile across,” Russell writes. “Soon, it seemed there’d be nothing left of our mountains to remove.”

When Prater’s son, Tommy, drives up to the Harlowe family trailer and dumps Nate’s bloody, bullet-riddled body on their front porch, Harlowe’s world truly shatters. As he vows to find out why his brother was murdered and what the Praters had to do with it, he struggles to maintain his emotional equilibrium. Adding to Harlowe’s grief is his mother’s relapse into opioid dependency following Nate’s death. “I walked closer to her and put my arms around her shoulders, partly sorry, but mostly beyond angry at how she was acting like she didn’t have any choice in the matter,” he says. “The order of things was all messed up.”

What isn’t messed up is Harlowe’s sudden attraction to the new girl in town, Tennessee Moore, a blue-eyed blonde who “smelled like suntan lotion and strawberry lip gloss.” He falls hard when she walks into the “Sip N Sak” convenience store, though Tennessee’s father is the new foreman at the mine—a dangerous man prone to sudden fits of violence. Despite a frightening run-in with her father, Harlowe can’t stay away from Tennessee, the only bright spot in his otherwise dark world.

During a Ferris-wheel ride with Tennessee and her little brother, Harlowe begins to dream of a life away from Strickland County, away from the mine, away from all the circumstances holding him back: “Our carriage clanged to a stop, and I let go of the bar. I couldn’t tell which was more real—the way I’d felt up there with the two of them, or the dread that was coming about going home, but I knew I needed something more often than a ride at a county fair to show me things could look a whole lot different from other places, depending from where you swung.” But first he must find answers, for Nate and for himself, no matter the danger.

Russell depicts a hardscrabble life in an environment ruined by decades of pollution, inhabited by hopeless people unable to escape poverty, addiction, domestic violence, and depression. They cling to the land—often handed down to them by generations of their ancestors—as their only salvation. As Harlowe’s friend and mentor, Mama Draughn, tells him, “There will always be hurt people who hurt other people. It’s only when the pain becomes too great, or the grace is even greater, that people change.” In A Sky for Us Alone Harlowe Comptom draws deep to find the courage—and the grace—to choose another path.

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