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Review: Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepanski

Title: Playing St. Barbara
Author: Marian Szczepanski
Year Published: 2013

Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pages: 379
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2013 Google Reading map): USA(PA)

FTC Disclosure: I received this book as a gift

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): The secrets, struggles, and self-redemption of a Depression-era coal miner's wife and three daughters play out against a turbulent historical backdrop of Ku Klux Klan intimidation and the 1933 Pennsylvania Mine War. Their intertwined lives eerily mirror the 7th century legend of St. Barbara, patroness of miners, reenacted annually in the town pageant. Tested by scandal, heartbreak, and tragedy, each woman will write her own courageous ending to St. Barbara's story.

Review: I love it when I get an email from the folks at TLC Tours since they somehow always know what books I am going to enjoy. I chose this book to review for a number of reasons: I live in Santa Barbara and every year someone portrays St. Barbara for our Old Spanish Days festivities; my grandfather and mother grew up in Pontycymmer, Wales, a coal mining town; and I am a lover of history so the setting and miners' strike was appealing.

The author has done a stunning job at the setting of this book. I felt like I was in their small town, seeing the baseball games, smelling the coke ovens, and feeling the poverty that surrounded the miners and their families. The spending of the paycheck on booze, the children dropping out of school to enter the mines or help at home, the divide between the miners and the bosses; it's all so vivid and real. Life was hard, which makes reading about it difficult at times, not because it wasn't well-written, but because it Szczepanski did it so well. I also found it interesting that there were so many different nationalities amongst the miners in Pennsylvania; it was quite a mixture of Italians, Germans, Poles, Slovaks, and, on the other side of town, the African-Americans.

The female characters really stick to the reader as well. Clare, the mother, has no power and no say in her miserable life, yet she finds the strength to go against her husband, her religion, and her culture to stop herself from getting pregnant with an early version of Plan B. It is the only bit of her life that is under her control. Her daughters also seem not to have much say in their lives, yet each one of them manages to steer her own destiny in a direction that will get them out of their father's house and onto a seemingly better life path.

I was never sure where this book was going to take me, which is a good thing. I think Szczepanski has found a strong voice with this first novel. If you'd like to know more about Marian Szczepanski and the books she writes, visit her website.

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