J.R. Lindermuth,
Watch the Hour
(Whiskey Creek, 2010)

With its realistic story set in the 1870s coal country of Pennsylvania, Watch the Hour has all the elements that make history come alive. The conflict between Irish miners and the mine owners, the police and the "Coalies," as they're called, is the backdrop for a dangerous and unexpected romance that shakes the community and makes one man question his assumptions about right and wrong.

The "Coalies" are Irish immigrants who come to Arahpot to scrape out a living from the coal mines at the expense of their health, their dignity and often their lives for meager pay. Yet the bonds of family keep them together and united against the mine company forces that want to keep them in their place as second-class workers. When police officer Ben Yeager discovers he has fallen in love with Jennie, the daughter of an imprisoned miner, it sets the stage for a clash of forces that threaten the community's delicate balancing act.

Then the mine owner offers Yeager the opportunity to advance -- and offers his granddaughter Phoebe's hand in the bargain. It seems an ideal match, but the young officer faces an unwelcome decision, one that has no happy answer.

"He knew what he wanted, or at least thought he did. But if Jennie wouldn't marry him, what then? Was he a fool to throw away what Mason was offering? It was a real opportunity, one he should have been grateful to get and which would mean a better life for his family. ... Still, he didn't love Phoebe and thought marrying her would be fraudulent, most likely having its own recriminations. And if he didn't marry Phoebe and accept Mason's proposal, what then? How would the old man respond to that?"

Watch the Hour is a fast-moving story that captures the confusion and quick passions that erupt when different cultures collide, forced together by economic necessity. The local priest, Father Delaney, is caught in the middle of another conflict just as important, between saving men's souls and -- more practically -- keeping these hard-scrabble families together.

There's lots of overlooked history here, too, part of the American story that is often overshadowed by the country's rush to assimilation in the 1800s, showing the process was neither unanimous in America, nor smooth, but built on a hard-fought respect between people.

The Irish in Pennsylvania, like the Chinese in California or the Poles and Italians in New York, struggle to find their way in the New World and often discover that prejudice and distrust are difficult to overcome here as well as in the country they left behind. Watch the Hour is one of those stories that can be read in an evening, or slowly read over days -- and (even better) worth re-reading for its deeper lessons of life and love in difficult times.

book review by
Mark Bromberg

18 September 2010

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