Mining Pa. coal country for mother lode of stories

Mining Pa. coal country for mother lode of stories

This appealing collection of 17 interrelated stories, set between 1948 and 1994, provides an indelible portrait of Eastern Pennsylvania coal country, of what a hard place can do to its people, those caught in its maws, as well as idealists game for escape.

Cokesville is a mythical name, though the place is undoubtedly Bethlehem. Bathsheba Monk is an obvious pseudonym, too. Clearly, the author knows firsthand the rough business of growing up working-class Eastern European in a place smothered by grit, decay and a near-monopoly draining the life out of its own. She loves the place and then again, not. Hence, the Monk business.

In “Annie Kusiak’s Meaning of Life,” she writes, “suddenly the trees become stunted, the houses crabbed, and the sky turns cadmium orange, like on Mars… The riverbanks are lined with monstrous smokestacks and brick buildings whose windows flash with sudden blasts of burning light. Dry gears and rail switches grate. It’s as if the earth opened up to reveal Cokesville Forge, which runs along the river to the horizon, the town behind it dwarfed and incidental.”

There is poor Bruno Gojuk, who falls into a vat of molten steel. It’s unclear whether it was an accident or suicide. As recompense, the mill gives his widow a 175-pound ingot, even though Bruno clocked in at more than 200, because that’s what he weighed when he started on the job, beginning the life that killed so many Cokesville men – though not usually in such a dramatic and literal fashion. His wife “stopped speaking to God when her son Steve died in Vietnam after a grenade hit the ammo pile he was guarding.”

Tess Randall, nã©e Theresa Gojuk (Bruno’s daughter), is the prettiest thing in Cokesville and flees to Hollywood to become a solid B-lister. In Cokesville, in her mother’s worn heart, she remains a goddess while her poor sister, Margaret, makes do with a priest for a boyfriend and a secondary role in the family hierarchy.

Annie Kusiak also leaves, only to flounder, a would-be writer who flails at reinvention like a fish on a dock. Annie is Now You See It’s connective tissue, a putative heroine, though Monk is as tough on her as she is on Cokesville and its denizens. Annie’s mother tells her: “You get so introspective. It’s not healthy to think so much. No one’s ever accomplished anything by thinking. And it makes you so unhappy.”

Annie isn’t sure she can write, either. “Opportunity is one thing,” I said. “Hustle is one thing. But writing fiction is like lying. You have to lie and make stuff up, and I don’t know if I can do it. Lie. About people.”

Monk’s not about to bathe Cokesville, or its people, in a warm glow unless it’s cadmium orange, that noxious residue of anthracite coal. More likely than not, her characters end up batty like Mrs. Wojic, who believes her dead husband has come back as one of two dogs (she can’t decide which) or difficult as sour Mrs. Szilborski, who doesn’t like anyone or anything, especially dogs.

The author has a wonderful voice, a gift for humor. “She has serious orange hair and teeth that will one day make an orthodontist happy,” she writes of a little girl. Tess tells her sister, “You know, once you get out of Cokesville, you can actually see the sunset. It’s not the tired orange ball falling into a bowl of pea soup.”

These people aren’t given to chatter, to excess, unless they get out, and Monk knows when to withdraw.

She also knows when to go back. Places like Bethlehem, or Cokesville, are hard to quit. They’re a wellspring of characters, of drama.

As noted on the dust jacket, Monk has moved back to the Allentown area. The reader can only hope it serves her well, and that more books, as memorable as this one, will follow.


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