Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Miner's Daughter, briefly

The Miner's Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas
5Q 3P M/J/S

In 1932, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Bread cost five cents (eight if it was sliced), a quart of milk cost a quarter, and you could buy a two pound jar of peanut butter for fifteen cents. Those prices seem incredible to us today, but what is even more incredible is how hard it was then for people to pay them. It was even harder if your livelihood depended entirely on someone else.

This book makes it clearer than any history textbook ever could just how deeply and inextricably miners' families were trapped in their hand-to-mouth existence. They were entirely at the mercy of mining company. What work there was to be had was at the whims of the company. What goods were to be had were available only at the company store. Nobody had the means to go elsewhere if they didn't like the prices or the products. Many of the people never traveled outside of their own town. Most of the children quit school after just a few years, because their help was needed in the mines or at home. And when it came to elections, "free" and "choice" weren't words in the company's vocabulary. They expected the miners and their families to vote for who and what was good for the company, not for themselves.

This is life as Willa Lowell knows it. She desperately wants to go to school and learn more, but she is needed at home. Her mother is pregnant again, and the pregnancy is not going well. Willa is deeply afraid that her mother's life is in danger. She struggles to do as many of the chores as possible so that her mother can rest. Since there is no running water in the town, that includes several daily trips to the water pump in town to haul back pails of water. The feeling of quiet desperation hangs over her home and the town. But a gleam of light comes when Miss Grace comes to town, bringing with her a whiff of the outside world, a sense of possibilities, and books. Miss Grace and new books to read open up Willa's world in ways that she could never have imagined.

As the months pass, her mother gives birth, her father and brother leave town in search of work, and Willa cuts her hair and dresses as a boy in order to get a job picking fruits and vegetables on nearby farms. She also falls in love. Through it all, Miss Grace remains a powerful influence on Willa, encouraging her to read books and to write down her thoughts. It is through Miss Grace that Willa and her family are made a life-changing offer. It will get them out of the mining town and give them a home of their own. But it means leaving her best friend and the boy who wants to marry her behind, and Willa is deeply unhappy about that, not just because she will miss them, but also because the opportunity is only available to white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Not only does this exclude her best friend and boyfriend, Willa believes it is anti-American, even if it is a government-sponsored program. Miss Grace and her family convince her to go, but Willa can't help expressing how she feels about the injustice that comes with this wonderful opportunity. She never expects that what she writes will open yet another whole new world for her. Her life may have started out without hope or prospects, but it will not end that way.

The writing is lyrical and moving. Moments of beauty and tenderness alternate with moments of despair and heartrending poignancy. I recommend this to teens who want to read historical fiction set in the United States. And while it isn't a classic romance story, it has enough romance in it to satisfy those fans, too, I think.

You can read more about the author and this book on her web site.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Agree? Disagree? Something you'd like to say in response? Feedback is welcome! Just keep it on topic, please. And if you found one of my booktalks and used it, I'd love to know how it worked for you.