Full disclosure: my mother wrote this book. It's a ticklish business writing reviews for friends and family members, because of course
my perspective is hopelessly personal. It's hopelessly personal in any review I write, but I guess I mean hopelessly intimate
. It's especially intimate because this book concerns a historical event that is important in the long life of my family.
Homestead, PA grows up from the banks of the Monongahela river just outside of Pittsburgh. I say grows up, because that part of Pennsylvania is all hills and rivers, like some unnamed American god caught the land under a door like a rug and then shoved. It's steep in a way a prairie-bred person such as myself is in awe of, the caste stratifications of the city starting low (in both senses of the word) on the river, where the mills were, and then rising to the gentry on the top of hill; the American class pyramid made manifest.
In 1892, which was near the beginning of a long recession we've mostly forgotten about (for some reason, even though it has a ton of commonalities with the economic crisis we are living in now), Carnegie and Frick attempted to slash wages for the workers at the Homestead steelworks, as well as making a bold attack on collective bargaining. (I hate to say this, but I've forgotten the name of Carnegie's company then. It became US Steel, the entity that ran the mills when I was a kid, after J.P. Morgan bought out Carnegie sometime later. Anyway.) The workers were locked out; they in turn circled the plant, physically repelling any attempt by the company to bring in scabs. This situation came to blows at the Battle of Homestead between Pinkerton militia and strikers, a battle the strikers won. And then they lost the war, and lost it bad.
This truncated history is pretty much what I knew about the strike, other than a lot of emotionally hot memories about what my Grandpa and other family thought about this, the fact that I am descended from the scabs that broke the union (and the town in some ways), the sort of itchy sense of survivor's guilt that hangs over any conversation that takes place in Homestead about the strike. (Still. Now. Even though I bet the memories are fading.) If there is a villain in this history, it is Henry C. Frick, Carnegie's whip arm and an all-around sumbitch. My mother and sister, with my grandfather, once visited Frick's house (now a museum) and when they got to the end of the tour, the attendant said brightly, "So where are you from?" When they said Homestead, everyone on the tour took a step back, like my family might explode into violence. We didn't; we are classy. [This telling is a little garbled, and I'm working on finding the blog post Trilby wrote about this.]
This book follows two people through this history, Emlyn, a new immigrant from Wales who has come to stay with his sister and brother-in-law (a steelworker), and a town doctor who was a doc during the Civil War. The Welsh at this point in history were the top of the industrial heap, in terms of immigrant workers. They tended to know English, and Wales was also heavily industrialized (pun intended), so they often had the skills from all the coal mining and stuff that were at a premium in the industrial world. Emlyn is on the run from his hardcore Congregational minister father after a crisis of faith that left him wondering whether he could become a minister himself.
Emlyn's first experiences in the New World are pretty funny/tragic, this soft seminary student getting used to the hard drinking, hard living, and hard working of life in Homestead. (The Congregationalists eschewed both drinking and dancing, and I really liked how this was treated seriously in the book, not like a joke or a mistake. The 18th Amendment banning alcohol came about precisely because of how the drink destroyed so many lives.) It's a slow beginning, moving through this town, meeting the doctor's two grown daughters that are at each other's throats over politics , various workers at the mill, the minister of the church, the town bully.
At about mid-book, the strike and battle take place, and that was some rousing stuff to read, really physical and compelling. (And here is a bit of personal/intimate: my grandmother died a few years ago, and we took her ashes and the ashes of my grandfather, and scattered them together on the banks of the Monongahela River, under the railroad trestle, by the Pump House which is one of the few buildings still standing from the mills. The mills were torn down and replaced with a mall. From the roof of that Pump House, the strikers shot at the Pinkertons coming up the river pulled by a tug, and were shot at in return. I didn't know that when I laid their ashes on that flowered ground, and I'm weeping a little about it now. The Pump House is now managed by the Rivers of Steel
National Heritage Area.) After reading about the bloody battle I was like, what is going to happen in the next 200 pages? Aren't we done? Oh, holy hannah, no. I had never understood how exactly the strike was broken, and what happened to Homestead, what left that place in so much such shock that I can still feel it over 100 years later, several generations removed. The next 200 pages detail that, in a long, slow end of the world. Gah.
There's another set of personal/intimate characters in this book, a German family called in as scab workers in the Homestead mills. This is avowedly my German family, and it was thrilling and strange to see those family stories acted out. (Mum only footnotes the most rousing of those stories in the afterword, because, as she rightly says, it was too allegorical, but it's cool and you should read the afterword, if you want to read this at all. It's also funny that something that actually happened is too allegorical for a novel, but life and art are strange.)
One of the things I really enjoyed about this book is the musical history playing out in the background. I feel a little bad walking around with this my Welsh name and almost no nurtured musicality, but Mum has always been so steeped in music, so knowledgeable about the old hymns and folk tunes and all that jazz. So I'll leave this review with a link to a song that thrums in the background of this story, a gospel song about the end of the world, and our sweet release. Actually, just kidding, I couldn't find a version of "When This World Comes to Its End" on freaking YouTube, so I'm going with the Welsh Hymn Calon Lan.
This is part of the review that is hopelessly personal/intimate, more so than the rest, which was bad enough; my experience reading that is is no way able to be translated to another reader. I hear stuff like this hymn on my tinny computer speakers, which I hope you are listening to now, and a part of me mists over and my vision goes all wobbly. I grew up on the odd second Sunday going to St. David's Society meetings, playing in the back pews while people who had Welsh last names and three or four generations from the homeland enacted these hymn sings in Midwestern churches. I heard them every single time they were mentioned in this book, all these people raised up in song, in solidarity with their lost countries, and I felt the lost country of Homestead. Lost or abandoned, same same.