Playing St. Barbara
by Marian Szczepanski
Why did you choose this book? This was a selection for my online book club
When did you read this book? January 2014
Who should read this book? fans of historical fiction who don’t mind a ‘tough’ read
Source: TLC Book Tours
In the Depression-era coal patch known as The Hive, miner’s wife Clare Sweeney keeps secrets to survive. Stripped of her real name, she hides her friendship with a town pariah, haunting guilt around the deaths of her three infant sons, and determination never to bear another. She defies her abusive husband and the town’s rigid caste system to ensure a better future for her daughters, who harbor secrets of their own.
Deirdre conceals her attraction to a member of the despised Company police. Katie withholds her plans for a college education—and the convent—from her high school sweetheart. And Norah suppresses the cause of her mother’s frequent miscarriages, the devastating memory of one brother’s death, and her love for a married man.
The four women’s intertwined lives eerily mirror the 7th century legend of St. Barbara, patroness of miners, reenacted annually in the town pageant. Each daughter is cast as St. Barbara, but scandal and tragedy intervene, allowing just one to play the coveted role. In turn, they depart from The Hive, leaving Clare to endure her difficult marriage—till a mine explosion rocks the town. Forced to confront the ghosts of her past, she faces a life-changing choice. Her decision will test her capacity to forgive and challenge her to begin a courageous journey to self-redemption.
I really liked this book, so much so, that I am having a bit of trouble getting into my next read. This one is going to stay with me for awhile. It is hard to actually get my thoughts down in a coherent way. The book is set in a depression era coal mining town in Pennsylvania and centers around the Sweeney family. The ‘head’ of the family is Fin, an abusive, alcoholic who beats his wife, Clare, regularly. The have three daughters, Norah, Dierdre, and Katie. It is impossible to describe how much I disliked Fin and how angry he made me. There were a couple of moments where he acted almost human, and then I was mad because I had to consider not being so mad!
Each of the three girls makes her escape from their life in the coal patch town, and each in a different way. But Clare continues to make excuses for Fin, and worse, blame herself, because it is what ‘she deserves’. I had a difficult time watching her continue to put up with the crazy old man! (But I come by it naturally. My grandmother once grabbed a shovel from her father when he was beating her younger brother, and informed him that if he ever laid a hand on him again, she would kill him.)
One thing I really enjoyed about the book was the interaction of the women in The Hive, the company town where they all lived. Many families had immigrated from different areas of Europe and I really enjoyed the bits of Italian, German, and Slovak thrown in. It reminded me of my Grandma! I grew very fond of several of the neighbors.
I did have a little difficulty at the beginning of the book. There was some vocabulary I was not familiar with, and descriptions on the mining process. I spent a bit of time googling. I’m not complaining, because I expect good historical fiction to challenge me and teach me. But the story would have moved a little faster if I’d had a glossary in the back ot the book to refer to. However, once I got past the first few chapters, I could not put this book down!
The other part some readers may have difficulty with is the amount of violence. Not only was Fin a mean drunk, but domestic violence was a way of life for him. In addition, there is cruelty and violence in the form of the Klan and the Cossacks during the mining wars and strikes. But it was part of the story and part of the times, and was realistically told.
This would be a GREAT choice for book clubs. The discussions would range from domestic violence and why a woman would choose to stay in that situation, to the history of labor relations and violence during strikes. This book just begs for a good discussion! I was sorry to see the book end and to have to say goodbye to these women!
The granddaughter of immigrant coal miners, Marian Szczepanski grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania and lived as a young child in the Jamison Coal Company house where her mother and aunts were raised. She holds an MFA in fiction from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has won awards for short fiction and magazine feature writing. Playing St. Barbara is her first novel. She lives in Houston, Texas.
My Rating: ★★★★1/2 4-1/2 Stars
Marian’s Tour Stops
Monday, January 6th: Books Without Any Pictures - author interview
Tuesday, January 7th: Literally Jen
Wednesday, January 8th: A Book Geek
Thursday, January 9th: The House of the Seven Tails
Monday, January 13th: Time 2 Read
Tuesday, January 14th: Book Journey
Wednesday, January 15th: A Patchwork of Books
Thursday, January 16th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Monday, January 20th: Helen’s Book Blog
Tuesday, January 21st: Bluestalking
Wednesday, January 22nd: A Musing Reviews
Tuesday, January 28th: The Infinite Shelf
Wednesday, January 29th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Thursday, January 30th: Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, February 4th: Giraffe Days
Friday, February 7th: Diary of a Stay a Home Mom