I received this book for free from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepanski
Published: 2013 by High Hill Press
Genres: Historical Fiction
Source: TLC Book Tours
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Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepansi is the story of four women living in a Depression-era coal mining town in Western Pennsylvania. Clara marries a coal miner and union leader, but Fin is an abusive asshole, and one of the first things he demands in their marriage is that she change her name to something that sounds less German. Their relationship continues to go downhill as she bears him three daughters, Deirdre, Katie, and Nora. Playing St. Barbara shows each woman’s struggle to escape her situation and create a better life for herself.
Deirdre’s rebellion comes in the form of a lover who happens to be a cop. Fin can’t handle it, because he sees all cops as oppressive and can’t disassociate them from the violence against the union that occurred earlier in his life. Then there’s Katie, who is in love with a boy in town, but also dreams of joining a convent and becoming a teacher. After Deirdre and Katie leave home, Nora continues to stay at home, because she feels as if Fin will likely kill Clara if there’s nobody there to stop him. Nora spends her weekends seeing films and dreaming of one day becoming as fashionable as her favorite stars. And then there’s Clara, who secretly uses contraceptives so that she won’t have to bear Fin any more children. Each character faces her own challenges, and each becomes empowered in a different way.
I loved reading Playing St. Barbara because it was set in a town similar to the one where I grew up. Reading the novel gave me a glimpse into what sort of lives my grandparents might have led (minus the domestic abuse, of course). Szczepanski explored many of the major issues that people faced at the time–low wages, alcoholism, and the fact that coal mining companies controlled every facet of life, including where you lived, where you shopped, and how you socialized. There was a lot of tension between different ethnic groups, as well as the general feeling that you had to become Americanized to be successful. My only wish is that Playing St. Barbara could have painted a more balanced picture of the unions; since Fin was the main representative of unionization that we saw, it was harder to see that normal people really did have valid concerns when standing up to mining companies. Overall though, I thought that Playing St. Barbara did a fantastic job showing how average people lived and the challenges that they faced every day.
As a part of the blog tour, I had an opportunity to do an author interview with Marian Szczepanski. If you haven’t already, you should check it out. Szczepanski explains some of her motivations behind Playing St. Barbara, which was partly inspired by her work at a domestic violence hotline.