Shining Light on a Dark History

Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepanski is a great book, a stunning debut novel that shimmers with unforgettable characters while casting necessary light on a dark chapter in American history. Drawn to the social and political history of coal mining in southwestern Pennsylvania because of her personal connection (her grandparents were immigrant miners), Szczepanski focuses on the lives of the mothers, daughters, and wives of coal miners. Telling their stories, she illuminates the terrible burdens forced on coal mining families and the immense spirit required to endure, much less thrive, in such an environment.

I quickly found myself immersed in Playing St. Barbara, caught up in the lives of the Sweeney family: coal miner Fin, his wife Clare, and their three daughters, Deidre, Katie, and Mary Clare. The girls must find their way out of the abusive rituals exercised by their miserable father, who fights for the rights of his fellow workers but in suffering defeat after defeat, takes his frustrations out by beating on the members of his family. The girls’ individual stories of survival, along with the story of their mother, mesh to create a mesmerizing and unforgettable exploration of family, community, and responsibility, set amidst the grim history of coke mining in Pennsylvania.

In the mining towns of southwestern Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century, might made right. The H.C. Frick Coke Company relied, again and again, upon the police force to help them maintain a choking grip on their miners. When the police were not effective in breaking strikes (and backs), the Klu Klux Klan was enlisted to carry out night time raids terrifying enough to be effective: worn down miners just could not fight back. For Fin Sweeney, the only fight he can win is the one he wages daily against his own family. His wife bears the brunt of his anger but the daughters come in for their share. Each girl, in her own way, will find her way out of the town and away from the family, using the patron saint of miners, St. Barbara, as a kind of guide. Sometimes the saint is an inspiration and sometimes she is the last straw: for who can believe in a dead saint when it takes the courage of living to finally break free?

Marian Szczepanski made a believer out of me – I believe in the possibility of light and grace, even in the darkest of times, and I am more enthralled than ever by the powerful stories of women, sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.

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