Historical fiction novel has familiar themes

"Playing St. Barbara" is a beautifully written piece of historical fiction set in a 1930s Pennsylvania mining town. Surprisingly, this is a debut novel for the talented Marian Szczepanski, a granddaughter of immigrant coal miners.

In an often depressing and haunting setting, Szczepanski brilliantly weaves in the legend of St. Barbara, patroness of miners, through an annual town pageant. Her four main characters' lives also "eerily mirror the seventh-century legend of St. Barbara."

The novel focuses on the Sweeney women — mother Clare and daughters Norah, Deirdre and Katie — who are terrorized by their abusive, alcoholic father, Fin. Themes of poverty, alcoholism, women's liberation, family loyalty, heritage, sacrifice, race and more play out, while each woman narrates her own story of living in the unsettled Great Depression era.

The story starts with "an essay" written by Katie for the annual St. Barbara Festival and Essay Contest. This introduction shares with readers the legend of St. Barbara, whom the Catholic Church no longer acknowledges as a saint.

In the essay, readers learn, "Barbara is honored as the patron saint of miners because she experienced an untimely end and was buried by an angel deep inside the earth." The essay also informs that it was standard practice to place a picture or statue of St. Barbara with a sword beside a tower at a mine entrance.

The novel opens with Deirdre, the middle sister's part, and also tells much of Clare's story, who receives the brunt of her father's physical abuse. Deirdre is destined to play St. Barbara in the pageant, even though she is a downhiller, because she gives the performance of a lifetime during auditions. But at the same time, she's falling in love with the last person in the world that her pap would want her to marry; she has to choose between family duty or love.

After Deirdre makes her decision, we are thrown into Katie's story, while still discovering more about Clare, whose husband tries to beat the German heritage out of her because of his hatred of the Nazis. Katie is trying to decide between getting out of the coal mining town with an opportunity to enter the convent and become a teacher or marry her childhood love, Jack.

Jack doesn't make the decision easy for Katie, and this is one man that Pap approves of, as Jack is busy working the picket lines against the Company, which actually resisted unionization until World War II. Clare warns there will be trouble and gives Katie advice, which she attempts to take and set her future straight.

Trouble means violence, murder, lynching and burning crosses as the Ku Klux Klan was active in the area in the 1930s, and Szczepanski states in an author's note at the end of the book, "(KKK) members placed company interests over those of the miners."

The novel is full of examples of the KKK interfering with miners' rights and using violence to get everyone in line. "Playing St. Barbara" has tough and emotional scenes throughout, but they are written with truth and grace.

At the end of the novel, Norah, the oldest sister, reveals her story of self-sacrifice and is actually the sister with the most courage, ambition and hopefulness of the three. She is loyal to her mother like no other and has given up much happiness to protect her mother from her father.

The cover describes this novel as a "timeless story of women finding their voices ...," and though this story takes place 80 years ago, some of the same themes haunt our news headlines today: domestic violence, bigotry, sexual harassment, stereotypes and poverty.

Book clubs across the country can read through "Playing St. Barbara" and discuss the historical fiction novel on a wider scale, comparing and contrasting to our world today, while using these four strong female characters to give us hope in a world that is still often confused.

Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (margodill.com/blog/). She lives in St. Louis with her family.

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