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When the World Was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney

July 27, 2014

When the World Was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney. Random House (2014), Hardcover, 320 pages.


A compelling novel about a girl growing into womanhood in Brooklyn Heights during and after World War II; a novel about loss and love.

Elizabeth Gaffney has crafted a wonderful novel that works on several levels. Her book has too many surprises for me to spoil them by offering a plot summary. It opens with Wally, the young girl at the heart of the novel, walking through the crowds celebrating V-J day, the victory over Japan that ends the war. We soon realize that something dire is going to happen, but not what it will be. Scenes from the war years are braided into the story. We move through happy and sad scenes involving Wally and her family. She spends time at her grandparents’ rather affluent home where she interacts with the maid, Loretta, and her son. And while Wally and her relations are white, the maid and her son are black in a world where prejudice rules. The children have fun, but tension hovers. Wally has already suffered several major losses and another one awaits. Throughout, Gaffney provides just the right details to ground her story in the history of the time and place, as when Wally helps knead the oleo to make it look like butter and devours the Wonder Woman comics.

The second section of the book focuses on Wally’s mother and the dislocation of people during the war which offers new joys and new risks. In the last section, Wally grows up. She is finding herself in scientific research and love, but something is still missing.

Many authors would have used the material in this book to write a dull, sentimental novel, but not Gaffney. Although there is no big dramatic violence, she has written a page-turner. When I put the book down temporarily, I was plagued by not knowing what her characters would do next. The title, which I feared indicated a book about “the good old days,” refers to a story the maid tells the children about creating and cherishing an imperfect world.

Gaffney has lived in Brooklyn all her life, but she is not old enough to have personal knowledge of the period covered by this book. She must be credited with her judgment in researching and writing historical fiction. The mood she recreates reveals both the exuberant optimism of victory in the war and the difficulties that victory exposes. While not a book primarily about issues, Gaffney acknowledges the period’s racism against both blacks and Jews and the troubling questions about the use of the atomic bomb, issues people at the time sought to ignore.  Her depiction of the ambivalent relationship between the maid and the family that employed her was particularly well-done.  While writing about the family’s obvious fondness and generosity toward Loretta, she also shows their continuing racial prejudice.  In addition, she reveals how Loretta sometimes prioritized the needs of her employers and their daughter over those of her son, a problem that often surfaces when former domestic servants tell their stories.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone looking for enjoyable and insightful reading.  I liked this book so much that I have already ordered Metropolis, her novel about nineteenth century New York.

Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America, by Ross Coen.

July 24, 2014

Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America, by Ross Coen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, November 2014.

The extensively researched history of a little-known aspect of World War II: the Japanese balloon bombs that landed in the USA during the last year of the fighting.

During World War II, the US government and military treated the balloon bombs that Japan began launching across the Pacific Ocean as a closely guarded secret, they despite the fact that at least 350 of them reached the continental United States and they killed six people. When the balloons first appeared no one knew what they were or where they came from. Most of them were found in the Pacific states, but a few reached the Midwest. They were free-floating balloons that were designed to reach what we now know as the jet stream which enabled them to cross the Pacific. Clearly the balloons carried explosives that could ignite fires in the isolated forests of the west and cause people to panic. They were kept secret to avoid panicking residents and to prohibit the Japanese from knowing that the bombs had landed. Fear that the balloons might carry biological weapons was great, but none was ever found to be present. The largest number of the balloon bombs appeared in the early months of 1940 when the winds carrying them were strongest, but the winds also carried rain and snow which insured that any fires they started were quickly extinguished. Although the numbers of arriving balloon bombs was declining by May, a group on a church picnic found and investigated one. It exploded killing five teenagers and a pregnant woman. Some attempt was made to warn people to avoid anything they found, and the war soon ended.

Ross Coen has extensively researched the balloon bombs and provides readers with a clear account of events surrounding them. His account is straight-forward and non-emotional, descriptive rather than analytical or judgmental. He describes the bombs in detail, but his writing never becomes overly technical. At present Coen is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Washington, but he already has developed the skills needed for solid historical research and writing. He has published other books on Alaskan history and politics, as well as having taught and participated in political projects. Coming from Alaska, he presents the stories of the balloon bombs that landed there and in Canada. He also spent a year teaching in Japan and provides an unusually full account of why and how the bombs were created.

Fu-Go, as the Japanese called the project, was researched and developed over several years. When the plans were complete, Japanese high school girls were assembled to make the balloons. First they created five-layered paper, and then assembled the balloon pieces. The work was grueling and conditions bad, but the girls were encouraged to be patriotic. After the war, some of the men who had led the project were interviewed by American scientists. According to them, one of the aims of the balloon assault was to lift the morale of the Japanese people after the devastating US bombing of their cities. They also hoped that the balloons could cause forest fires that would panic US citizens. No plans to arm the balloons with biological warfare ever existed. Coen argues that their goal of terrorizing American citizens with the balloon bombs was no different to the carpet bombing of Japanese cities by the US military.

I was drawn to this book because my father had been involved in examining the Japanese balloon bombs. He was in the Medical Corp at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, in 1944-1945, when the bombs began to appear. As described by Coen, the Army G-2 unit at Fort Lewis sent out a bomb expert and a bacteriologist as the first responders to each balloon sighting. He was the bacteriologist, sent to insure that the balloons did not contain any toxic materials. As I read Coen’s book, I remembered him leaving home secretly at strange times to do his G-2 work. I only later learned what he actually did.

This is an excellent book, written to be read by both historians and the general public. It is a somewhat specialized one, however. I recommend it to anyone interested in World War II, Japanese history, or the local history of Alaskan and the west coast regions.


The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan.

July 22, 2014

The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan.  Ember (2013), Paperback, 320 pages.



A magical book about a woman who is able to transform seals into beautiful women and how the islanders coped with the results.

I was enchanted by this book. The language was a joy to read; lush and descriptive with a few strange words and syntax to remind a reader this was not our familiar world. Even the landscape appears magical. “Behind and around me the horizon shook in the upflying wind, as if the sea were on the point of bursting from its bowl, taking flight entirely.” But as with the sea-wives themselves, just under the beauty lurked a darker reality. The whole story was “horrid and beauteous,” like the song that called the women out of the seals. For me the most powerful element of this book was the ambiguity between good and evil that ran through it.

The Brides of Rollrock Island contains the accounts about the sea-wives told by different residents of the tiny island. The central character is Misskaella, the youngest of six children. She knew she was unattractive and different from her siblings and neighbors, harking back to a strange ancestor. Everyone in the village feared and harassed her, used her as a drudge. “I was like a broom or dishrag that anyone might pick up and use, and put aside without a thought when they were done with me.” Discovering her ability to interact with the seals changed her life. “Exultant, I watched as my life tore free like a kite from its string and flung itself up into the windstorm that was my future.” Her new joy demanded sacrifice, however, “The rightness of what I had done, and the wrongness both, they tore at me, and repaired me, and tore at me again, and neither of them was bearable.” Then a man paid her to bring him a seal bride. Needing to support herself and enjoying a touch of revenge, she did his bidding—and that of other men who desired the gentle, loving sea-wives she could give them. But there was a cost to be paid. The human women and their children fled the island. By the next generation, sons realized how unhappy their sea mothers were. (There were no daughters, because girl babies are returned to the sea.) They and their mothers conspired to ease the sorrow. For better and for worse.

Many speculative novels are about fierce battles between good and evil, but not this one. Here good and evil are intrinsically mixed. Early in the book, Misskaella is presented sympathetically, but she becomes the witch responsible for the changes that occur. She even pulls men into desiring the sea maids when they try to resist. In addition, the men are not just creatures of lust and greed. The sea maids offer the men simplicity and peace, continuity with life on the island. I doubt I could refuse one if offered.

More deeply this is a novel about the dark side of dreams, where we become obsessed with our own desires and hurt others. Lanagan reveals how easily we avoid admitting the cost of something we desire. As one of the sons realizes, you can’t relieve the pain of some people without hurting others. Some of the characters, however, find ways to move on in an imperfect world. Even Misskaella has had her moments of joy.

Margo Lanagan is an Australian author, born and raised there. She has traveled globally working in a variety of jobs and developing her writing skills. She returned to Australia in 1988 where she has written speculative fiction, often for children and young adults. The Brides of Rollrock Island is marketed for young adult readers. Maybe. They would certainly recognize the conflicts in the book, but may lack the experience to deal with its ambiguity. I am certainly not young, and I loved it for its complexity.

I strongly recommend this book to all who are willing to surrender to the complicated magic. You might need to be in the right mood to enjoy it. If you are you may enjoy its sheer beauty.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore.

July 20, 2014

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore.  Random House. Available October 2014.

A fascinating history of the creation of the Wonder Woman comic strip, its creator, and its beginnings in the radical feminist world of early twentieth century.

Jill Lepore is an accomplished historian specializing in eighteenth century America. With regular articles in The New Yorker and books accessible to a general audience, she has an exceptional ability to write history for those outside the academic establishment. Best of all, she obviously enjoys discovering interesting tidbits of the past, especially when they concern Harvard, where she teaches. Recently I read and enjoyed her impressive biography of Ben Franklin’s sister, Book of Ages. (See my review.) In her newest book she applies her historians’ skills to the popular comic strip, Wonder Woman, its eccentric creator William Moulton Marston, and the way in which the comic strip reveals a link between the feminism of the early twentieth century and the feminism that surfaced in the 1960s and 1970s.

The major character in The Secret History of Wonder Woman is the comic stripe’s creator, William Marston, a bright and multifaceted young man who attended Harvard, earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees there, as well as his law degree and a Ph.D. in the new discipline of Psychology. While at Harvard he was exposed to the militant feminism emerging in the United States which followed the example of Ernestine Pankhurst and the English suffragists. Sadie Elizabeth Hollowell, his strong, outspoken girlfriend, and later wife, was attending Mount Holyoke and shared her devotion to women’s equality with him. While still an undergraduate, Marston was involved in Harvard’s psychological laboratory’s attempts to create a device that could accurately prove if a person was telling the truth. He went on to perfect and promote an early lie-detector, but he failed to succeed in his efforts to earn money from his device, or to begin a business or to climb the academic ladder.

Marston and those around him constantly told lies, in part to keep his unconventional household secret. In addition to his wife, Marston brought home Marjorie Humpery, a woman with whom he was sexually involved. Over the years she stayed with the couple for long periods of time. In addition, when he was teaching at Tufts, Marston became involved with a student, Olive Byrne,who joined his household permanently. She was the daughter of Margaret Sanger’s more radical sister. For much of the 1920s and 1930s, Marston’s wife supported the family with editorial and administrative jobs while Byrne kept house and raised the children, two of her own and two of his wife’s, all sired by Marston.

Marston’s household was full of discussion of birth control and other ideas espoused by the new feminism. Lepore traces the ways in which younger women rejected the ideals and images of sacrificial motherhood which characterized the older women’s rights movement. They focused instead on individualism and pleasure for women. Although often little known and over-looked, these women laid the ground work for the feminism that emerged in the mid to late twentieth century. Lepore argues that instead of having had two “waves” of advocacy for women in the United States, feminism has been a river with Wonder Woman and those around her creation linking the years between the 1920s and the 1960s.

Although Marston welcomed the images of the New Woman being advocated by the feminists, he ran his household as something of an old-fashioned dictator. He believed, like the women’s rights advocates of the last century, that women were superior to men, stronger and “better” in every way. He also believed that women enjoyed being dominated. In fact for him, their enjoyment of domination was essential if the world was ever to know peace.

When comic books were an instant success in the 1930s, Marston was intrigued. In 1941, just as his nation entered World War II, Marston grabbed the opportunity to publish Wonder Woman comics, featuring a strong woman from Amazonia, a woman comparable to Superman and Spider Man. In it he drew on earlier utopian feminist novels by Charlotte Gilman and Inez Hayes. His character, however, was beautiful and scantily clothed. In his comic, Wonder Woman and the other women were regularly tied and bonded, to the dismay of Marston’s critics.   The public at large loved the comic and it became an icon of the period.  (I am currently reading a novel about life in New York city during World War II in which the little girl loves Wonder Woman.)    By the mid-1940s, however, Marston was ill and dying.  Those who took over the series took away Wonder Woman’s strength and made her subservient to men. When feminism reappeared in the 1960s and 1970s, Wonder Woman had a brief revival. While popular she never reached her former stature.

My summary hardly does justice to all the stories that Lepore has interwoven into her account. I highly recommend the book to all who are interested in the curious mix of information The Secret History of Wonder Woman provides. Lepore writes excellent popular history and provides useful insight into twentieth feminism.

Available October 2014.



Surviving Peace, by Olivia Simic.

July 16, 2014

Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir, by Olivera Simic.  Spinifex Press (2014), Paperback, 188 pages.


A powerful account by a woman from the former Yugoslavia of the long-term impact of the Bosnian War of the 1990s on her personally and on her people.

In telling her own story and the stories of others about the Bosnian War, Olivera Simic advocates for peace. She believes that war can never be an effective response to violence. Not only are human beings killed and maimed during the war itself, but the social and personal destruction continues after the fighting stops. “Surviving the peace” can be as difficult as war itself, as she shows us in this book.  Calling her book a “political memoir,” Simic is not writing about politics but raising issues about the impact of the public, political actions such as wars have on private lives.

Simic grew up in Banja Luka, a large town in Yugoslavia, governed by the Communist leader, Tito. Whatever problems people had under Communism, the country was peaceful, health care and education were available, and ethnic identities were absorbed in communal national identity. Until after Tito died in 1980, she was not aware that she was Serbian or that her close friends belonged to other groups. When war broke out in 1992, she was nineteen. Then ethnicity became a matter of life and death; friends left to avoid the ethnic cleansing. Simic attended law school in Serbia and endured the NATO bombings there. Although she did not identify with the Serbian cause, her name defined her as a Serb. After the war ended in 1999, she studied in London and Costa Rica, but she was unable to find work when she returned to her home country. Now teaching in law school in Australia and working to advocate for human rights, she has written this book as an exploration of what happens to victims and survivors of war. Hers is not a chronological narrative, but a mix of her personal story with more general analysis of what war destroys.

The signing of the peace treaty ending the war in Bosnia left the region divided and suffering. The war tore apart multi-ethnic communities of people and forced them to accept new identities based only on their ethnicity. As Simic makes clear, such division is simplistic and destructive. To divide a region that has been one nation into states defined by ethnicity sharpens the hatred among them. Ethnicity is only one aspect of who a person is. We need to see each other as multi-faceted and to understand the universal humanity that runs through us all.  Qurratulain Hyder tells the same story in her fine novel, My Temples, Too, about the Partition of India and Pakistan.

Simic challenges the claim that Yugoslavia and the Balkans have been involved in constant warfare as a myth devised by the international community. While the region has experienced a series of wars, at a daily level, ordinary people from the different ethnic groups had learned to live with each other, marrying and being friends. One of the most insightful sections of the book was about how languages of the various ethnicities had blended in Yugoslavia into an inclusive Serbo-Croatian speech. After the country was divided, each has sought to “purify” its language of words that originated with other ethnicities.

Another issue that Simic discusses is the way in which each ethnic group has its own version of truth about what has happened in the region. Her father seldom sees or hears anyone but other Serbians. In his isolation, he is convinced that only the Serbs have suffered and he denies major historical facts such as the Serbian massacre of Bosnians at Srebrennica. All her family disapprove of Simic’s professional interests in such complex questions as why the Serbians committed atrocities allegedly in defense of women like herself. Facing the shared reality of what happened is, for Simic, an essential part of healing from the war. We cannot escape the past by denying its reality.

While Simic now lives in Australia, she returns to the former Yugoslavia on yearly visits to her parents and friends. She reports on the desperate conditions that now exist there. The economy is in dire straits and about half the population is unemployed. Even her friends who trained as professionals are grateful for temporary, low paying work. Hopelessness is wide-spread. People who remained are often full of anger. Those like herself who left and lived as exiles had no sense of belonging anywhere.

For me, the most moving parts of Simic’s book are those which focus on her own post-traumatic stress syndrome. Although her symptoms were classic, she struggled to ignore them; it was difficult to even admit that she had suffered from her experience in the war zone. She believed that PTSD was only for combatants and discounted her own pain as minor. Finally she broke down and began the process of learning to deal with the intrusions of the past into her present life. Dealing with PTSD is an ongoing process in her life, as it is in lives of many survivors of tragic situations. Only within the context of her PTSD is she able to write about the 78 days and nights of NATO bombing of her city.

I was impressed with Simic, and although I have not lived through the same trauma of war in my country, I agree with her assessment of its over-looked costs. We need people like her to make us face what we would like to forget. I also appreciated her insistence on blending the “objectivity” of academia with her own emotional response to what happened. She is not primarily concerned with the battlefield, but with the women whose lives war interrupted. As she points out, war, like so much else in life affects people differently depending on our gender.

Living in a country that fights only in other people’s lands, I had never read about war invading women’s lives until I started to read more globally. I am grateful for the authors who have expanded my understanding. See below.  Yvonne at Stumblingpast has just posted a wonderful piece about “War and Gender” that expands some of the points that Simic makes. Check it out.

While this is an important book that should be widely read, it has flaws. In her generalizations about the impact of war, Simic is sometimes unclear and repetitive. I wished she had included more about her own research, especially about what can be done to mitigate the social and personal problems. The listing of her other publications in the bibliography indicates that she has considered such issues. Adding her findings about what can be done would have strengthened the book and made it less grim.

I have only presented a sampling of Simic’s observations and experiences. You need to read it to gain her full picture. I strongly recommend you do.

Thanks to Spinifex Press for sending me a copy of Surviving the Peace to review.


Here are a few books that have also taught me about women living in war zone.  See my reviews.

My Temples, Too, by Qurratulain Hyder.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

A Golden Age: A Novel, by Tahmima Anam.

Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forma.


July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer.

July 13, 2014

July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer.  Penguin Books (1982), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 176 pages.


A brilliant novel about a white South African family, forced to leave Johannesburg because of the violence against whites, and their former servant who has rescued them and taken them to his village.

Noble Prize-winner Nadine Gordimer is a South African writer who lived through apartheid and its violent ending. In this novel she explores the psychological changes to both blacks and whites when those who were powerful become totally dependent and those who have been powerless suddenly hold life-and-death influence over their former masters. This subtly political novel is not about ideology or revenge, but about how gaining or losing power and privilege affects us as human beings. More personally, Gordimer is looking at the question of where white liberals like herself fit into the new order. As power continues to shift in the post-colonial world, this is an important question for white liberals like myself to consider.

SPOILERS: Sorry, but I can’t discuss this book with addressing its ending.

For fifteen years, July had been the servant of a prosperous, white family living in the suburbs of Johannesburg. When black rebels attacked the city, he saved their lives by taking them to hide in his own village. The novel opens with July bringing them breakfast tea, “as his kind had always done for their kind.” But the familiarity of that act underlines the immense physical and psychological changes that have taken place. The children adapted first, swept up in the waves of children who roamed the village. The new reality of village life is worse for the adults on whom the novel centers. Maureen realizes what is happening:
She was in another time, place, consciousness; it pressed in upon and filled her as someone’s breathe fills a balloon shape. She was already not what she was. No fiction could compare with what she was finding she didn’t know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination.

The sheer physical deprivation of life in the village was overwhelming to both Maureen and Bam. As Gordimer vividly describes, there was no privacy, no ways to keep clean, and dull repetitive food, but the psychological shifts were even more dramatic. The total dependence on the villagers was also disorienting. They had no point of reference for what was happening to them.

Bam and Maureen also changed in how they related with each other. Sexual desire between them had ended and they no longer made love. “Lack of privacy killed desire–if there had been any to feel.” But the rift between them went deeper. “Back there” they had pulled together when trouble threatened. Now Bam had no idea of what Maureen might say or do. She had been raised to be dependent on men and when she saw her husband as helpless, she distanced herself, still wanting him to be the refuge and protector he had been in the past. Briefly she longed “to go over to the man and sink against, embrace him, touch someone recalled, not the one who persisted in his name, occasionally supplying meat, catching fish for the people.”

July’s People is not simply about how the whites respond to change, but also about July and the people of the village. It is never easy to write about those who are outside one’s own frame of references, but Gordimer had been attentive and respectful enough to listen to how black Africans thought and felt before she wrote about them. She is able to skillfully reveal the differences between the mask that July presented as a servant and the person he became once that mask was removed. He went from being polite, accommodating, and servile to showing himself as a village leader. He no longer carried his passbook, but he didn’t dare throw it away. Although he continued to bring them food and fuel, his attitude toward them changed. He made clear in little ways that he was now the one in control. He took the keys to the vehicle in which the group escaped and went off to get supplies without telling his former masters. When Bam’s gun disappeared, he refused to try to find who took it.

July’s wife and mother were polite to Maureen, but they did not befriend her. Instead, they complained to July that the whites could not be as helpless as they seem and that it was dangerous to hide them in their midst. They viewed Maureen as particularly clueless. She had to be taught “the difference between a plant that even a cow knew better than to chew, and the leaves that would make her children strong.”

As Maureen became increasingly desperate, she tried to approach July and create a sexual bond between them. July wanted none of her attention and responded with
the stored-up bitterness of having done her bidding for years.
How was she to have known, until she came here, that the special consideration she had shown for his dignity as a man, while he was by definition a servant, would become his humiliation itself, the one thing there was to say between them that had any meaning.

The book ends with Maureen running away. A helicopter could be heard landing near the village and, although she had no knowledge of whom it contains, she ran toward it.
She runs: trusting herself with all the suppressed trust of a lifetime, alert, like a solitary animal at the season when animals neither seek a mate nor take care of young, existing only for their own survival, the enemy of all that would make claims of responsibility. She can hear the beat, beyond those trees, and those, and she runs toward it. She runs.

Gordimer’s prose is dense and full of detail. As much as I loved July’s People, I was sometimes unable to follow what was happening. Perhaps Gordimer was intentionally creating a mood of confusion and uncertainty in her writing. In response, I turned to literary criticism of the book. One of the articles I found was Nancy Topping Bazin’s “White Women, Black Revolutionaries.” In it she discussed the ways in which gender and sex are interwoven with politics and power in this book. Having read Gordimer’s letters, she is able to fill in some of her intention in ending the novel as she did. When a film producer was revising the book to make it into a movie, he pushed her create an ending that would be clearer to audiences. Her response was to show Maureen as hoping that the helicopter contained black rebels and that they would accept her.

As Bazin shows from Gordimer’s letters, the author disdainfully rejected the idea of writing a “feminist” narrative. Maureen did not find internal strength to survive alone or to become friends with the village women. She went from dependency on her husband and then on July to the hope that the helicopter would be “manned” with yet another individual or group who would take care of her. A novel as complex as this one may be interpreted from a variety of perspectives, but I found Bazin’s analysis helpful and valid.

I recommend this fine novel to other readers, especially those interested in colonial and post-colonial issues. If her other novels are as impressive as this one, I see why she was awarded the Noble Prize. I also understand why Kinna @ Kinnareads included it as the only novel by a white writer on her list of most important African women’s books.  This is an important book for all of us to read as we try to understand each other across the colonial/post-colonial divide.

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, by Barbara Taylor

July 11, 2014

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, by Barbara J. Taylor.   Akashi Press: Kaylie Jones Books (2014), Paperback, 256 pages

A melodramatic novel about a family in a coal-mining town, struggling to recover from the death of one of its daughters.

Set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the early 1900s, this novel traces a Welch coal-mining family seeking to come to terms with the death of their nine-year-old daughter, Daisy. The father turns to drink and leaves the family. The mother withdraws into the company of Grief, a seductive man, invisible to all but her, who encourages her self-pity. Rose, a year younger than her dead sister, blames herself for everything that goes wrong. Flashbacks to events before the girl’s death and incidents surrounding the tragedy slowly illuminate what happened and explain the characters’ reactions to it. A massive snowstorm and an evangelical preacher sweep the story to its climax.

Barbara J. Taylor is a resident of Scranton. She grew up in the town and now teaches school there. Her love of the place and its people give the book a somewhat nostalgic tone, despite the tragedies related in the story. While she accurately describes the enormous risks of coal mining, the community itself seems unusually comfortable and secure. None of the gritty poverty that was typical of such places ever appears. No one ever worries about being hungry. Ethnic divisions are present, but appear to be relatively harmless. The activities of the church goers are mildly amusing, but never vital to the main characters. The death of a loved one and the ongoing risks of coal mining are chilling and real, but overall the town appears as smugly middle-class.

Other readers will probably like this book more than I did.  I prefer books with less nostalgia and more literary merit.


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