I was recently contacted by Tribute Books a small publishing firm based in Archbald, Pennsylvania to ask me to review a short novel written for young teens (and older) set in 1860's coal mining country in the eastern part of that state.
Call Me Kate: Meeting The Molly Maguires is the story of 14-year-old Katie McCafferty, a young Irish immigrant, who lives in a coal mining town called "The Patch" at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. The town has sprung up around the local underground coal mine and is a true company town. Most of the houses are owned by the coal company, as is the main store. The mine itself is dangerous and deadly and true to history, has boys as young as 7 or 8 years old working it. Many boys and men are injured or killed at the mine in "The Patch" because the mine owner refuses to install basic safety controls or even adequate ventilation in order to save money.
When Katie's dad is seriously injured in the mine, she has to quit school where she was doing quite well and go to work as a domestic. This eventually leads to her employment in another town working for a wealthy owner of the very mine where her father and friends have been toiling.
Through a friend, Katie is drawn to involvement with the Molly Maguires, a secret group made up of Irish coal miners and formed to combat the brutal working and living conditions. The group was a very early attempt at forming a miner's union to demand better safety conditions and higher pay. The Molly Maguires also strongly opposed the military draft imposed by Abraham Lincoln while the Civil War raged. Their main point of contention was that wealthy men could pay $300 and avoid serving in the war, while the poor Irish and other immigrants were forced to serve in combat.
This group was of course opposed strongly by the mine owners and operators. Both sides resorted to violence and other dirty tricks to advance their cause. Eventually in the 1870's, ten of the Molly Maguires were hanged in Pennsylvania for their involvement in the movement.
Call Me Kate is authored by Mary Roe, a native of the anthracite coal region in Pennsylvania. It is targeted mostly to young teens, but I found it a very enjoyable read. It's descriptive of the horrors of coal mining and the injuries and deaths which result even today, as we unfortunately saw a few months ago in West Virginia. The characters ring true, especially Katie herself and her friends who begin trying to fight the conditions they are forced to toil in.
If I might be permitted a personal note, I have many ancestors and relatives who labored in the coal mines and coal fields of southeastern Ohio. My grandfather quit school in the 8th grade in the 1920's in order to support his family by working the mines beginning at age 13. He and my grandmother lived in a real coal company town and had to buy their items at the company store for exorbitant prices. Other more distant relatives of mine were seriously injured in mining accidents, including a great-uncle who was partially paralyzed by a cave-in. While I've never had to work in a mine, I am proud to be the grandson and nephew of men who have. Please note the below photo taken in 1911 in Pennsylvania of child coal miners. Be grateful that we live in a society which would never permit our own children to work like they and my grandfather had to.
Call Me Kate: Meeting The Molly Maguires brought me closer to the experiences of my family. I could almost feel the grime and coal dust the author describes. The heartache which Katie feels when her father is severely injured is felt by the reader. The struggles that the other families face are felt as well.
I recommend this book highly. It helps the reader understand what coal country was like back in the 1860's (and to some extent, even today). It chronicles what terrible conditions workers dealt with in helping to make America great, a story which is unfortunately often overlooked.
The book is available from the publisher or at amazon.com.