40 Patchtown, Damian Dressick. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2020.
Summary: Set during a coal strike in Windber, Pennsylvania in 1922, captures the hardship striking miners faced in their resistance to mine owners, their efforts to form unions and gain better wages for dangerous work.
My family and that of my wife traces its history to towns between Johnstown, Pennsylvania and Youngstown, Ohio. Many had associations with either the coal or steel industries. I was reminded in reading 40 Patchtown of the stories we heard at family gatherings of mine and mill owners, strikes and strike-breakers, Pinkerton’s, the hardships and the violence that came with encounters between powerful corporations and workers who risk their lives to dig coal out of the earth and to forge the steel that built the nation. There were the ethnic rivalries between eastern Europeans who arrived earlier, and Italians who came later. Company housing, rooming houses, and camps for evicted strikers. Finally, I encountered words I used to hear as a kid, but rarely since like studda-bubba (old woman) and dupa (your butt).
Damian Dressick, a writing professor at Clarion College (Pa.), grew up in coal country and through interviews with retired miners and their families and archival research, captures the hardships, the dangers, the family bonds, and the struggles to maintain worker solidarity during a grinding strike. His novel is set in Windber, Pennsylvania, a small mining town three miles south of Johnstown, in Somerset County during a coal miner strike in 1922. The novel opens with main character Chet Pistakowski joining his older brother Buzzy and a friend to go after “scabs” being brought in to take over the jobs of strikers. Buzzy ends up killing one of the men. The death of this replacement worker intensifies the conflict between the strikers seeking recognition for their union and the company. A train with more replacement workers is surrounded by armed guards who violently suppress and disperse the workers. Meanwhile, Chet struggles in his conscience over the killing of the Italian “scab,” who didn’t know he was taking the job of another.
After Buzzy is apprehended and killed, Chet’s family faces eviction. Dressick takes us into the worker camps and the efforts of union organizers to support the workers and the grinding poverty into which they descended. Chet takes over Buzzy’s job hauling bootlegged alcohol, running risks both with law enforcement and the bootlegging gangs themselves. The job brings in a lot of money, but the illicit activity, what his family and girl friend think of what he is doing, and the time it takes away from the union creates tension within Chet. This all comes to head with the death of a union organizer, confronting him with choices that could change his life or end it.
Dressick tells a riveting story that evokes the conditions of this era without becoming a documentary. The novel raises questions about the moral choices facing those subject to the overwhelming use of power and violence. Do oppressive conditions justify violence? Is violence folly when the oppressor has overwhelmingly superior force? Our understanding of how terrible the conditions these miners faced is intensified when we realize that it is a fourteen year old Chet who must wrestle with questions like these.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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