Dwight Harshbarger, a Milton native, has won the West Virginia Library Association 2011 Award for Literary Merit, given annually to one author, for his historical fiction novel "Witness at Hawks Nest."

The book, issued by Huntington-based Publishers Place under its Mid-Atlantic Highlands imprint, evokes the early 1930s industrial tragedy in the digging of a hydroelectric tunnel for Union Carbide.

The award, won in previous years by authors such as Homer Hickam ("Rocket Boys") and Jeanette Walls ("The Glass Castle"), will be presented to Harshbarger at a dinner at the Charleston Marriott Hotel on Thursday, Oct. 6.

As to the Hawks Nest story from which Harshbarger draws, conservative estimates put the death toll at over 700 workers who succumbed to silicosis poisoning. Silicon dust was generated by the digging, especially when workers did "dry drilling," which the company preferred, instead of wetting the rock and thus making slower progress.

Harshbarger's novel follows Orville Orr, who is hired as a "shack rouster" by his old Army buddy, Bullhead McCloud. Orville's main job is to get the tunnel workers up in the morning and down to their drilling posts. By and by, however, he is recruited by Bullhead, on behalf of management, to transport the bodies of silicosis victims to the cemetery. His disgust builds until he turns whistleblower against the company, at the risk of his life.

Harshbarger, who holds a doctorate in psychology, currently is adjunct professor of community medicine at the West Virginia University Medical School in Morgantown.