In my opinion, the best Dear America out there.
A Coal Miner’s Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska, Lattimer, Pennsylvania, 1896.
This is a book near and dear to my own heart as a Polish girl, and it’s one of the few DA novels with an older protagonist and a love story that isn’t a complete horrorshow. The historical incident that it deals with is pretty, uh, incidental—it’s a mine strike in the Lattimer coal mines, and it takes place pretty near the end of the book. The bulk of the novel focuses on Anetka coming to America and adapting to her new life as the wife of a man she barely knows.
Anetka lives in a small village in Poland with her grandmother and her seven-year-old brother, having lost her mother the year before. Her father is in America, working in a coal mine and sending them back money as often as he can. He has been promising to bring them to America eventually, but in the meantime Anetka is more preoccupied with helping her grandmother, teaching local children Polish (which is, of course, forbidden under Russian rule), and gossiping with her best friend.
She also runs into a soldier, Leon (literally, she bumps into him on the street) and she snipes at him a bit about the needless cruelty of the Tsar’s soldiers, and he pretty much agrees with her. He comes by her house to bring a letter over, and the letter—horrible, horrible, horrible—is from her father with three steamship tickets to America. The catch is that another man from the mines, Stanley, has paid for them all to cross so Anetka can marry him. Anetka is horrified at this, because she and her best friend have been talking about how they want to marry for love (unlike their mothers and grandmothers), and also because of course she doesn’t want to marry some random dude she’s never met! Now, normally I would complain about the trope of “Girl in culture of arranged marriage wants Something Different” because it’s so terribly overdone, but this nicely averts it with some discussion between Anetka and her friend about how they want their lives to be different and why.
Anetka’s grandmother doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, though, because as she sees it there’s nothing wrong with an arranged marriage. She gets after Anetka to sew her wedding sheets and the other things that she’ll need, and in the meantime Jozef, Anetka’s little brother, befriends Leon and invites him over to their house. He helps to thatch the holes in their roof, teases Anetka, and she gets righteously offended by his entire existence, pretty much.
But the following week, Anetka runs into a different soldier who’s heard about how she teaches Polish to schoolchildren, and starts insinuating that there’s trouble afoot. And then he grabs her and hauls her behind a building, and who appears but Leon, who bashes the other guy in the head with a rock. They run home, where Anetka tells her grandmother what happened, and they decide that the best thing to do is get the hell out of Dodge. But her grandmother opts not to go—she gives her ticket to Leon to escort Anetka and Jozef, and they leave that same night for Hamburg.
On the ship, Anetka befriends Lidia and Jerzy, a married couple slightly older than she is who are bound for the same town. The trip takes almost a month, and near the end of the trip there’s a party on board. Leon asks Anetka to dance and kisses her at the end of it, which she secretly enjoys and then is absolutely horrified at how forward she’s been. She avoids him until they reach America, and then they’re separated when Leon tells the Ellis Island officials that because as a soldier of the czar he is guilty of crimes against humanity. (Leon sounds more and more like a stand-up guy.)
Off they go to Lattimer, which turns out to be pretty awful—a mining town with nonstop soot and filthy miners everywhere, where Anetka will sleep on the floor at the boarding house. She meets her father again for the first time in years, and he tries to convince her that an arranged marriage is a good thing. Anetka remains skeptical at best.
That weekend, she gets to meet the famous Stanley, and he introduces her to his three young daughters. Anetka manages to keep her head on (although since the girls are named Violet, Rose, and Lily, her response is “What a beautiful garden” which is more self-possession than I certainly would have had) but rebels in her diary about how nobody asked her about any of this.
While they wait for their wedding, Anetka offers to look after the girls during the day, which proves to be more trouble than she anticipated since Violet, the oldest, is predisposed to hate her new stepmother-to-be. Jozef offers his own share of trouble, since he loathes school and wants to work in the mines, and acts out continually. One day Anetka and Lidia go into the nearest real town, Hazleton, to buy some things not offered at the company store, and Anetka is mortified by how shabby and unkempt she appears next to the neat and pretty American girl working behind the counter. (I enjoy a good realism plot about how awful everyone feels as a teenager, so.)
Since Anetka doesn’t know very much English, she gets herself into some trouble—she knows only “Put on book” at the company store, but not what it means—that the pay gets deducted out of Stanley’s wages. So when she gets the girls some candy and says only “put on book,” Stanley loses it and yells at her before she tells him she had no idea—again, as with so very many things here, she had no idea.
And then, who does she see in Lattimer? LEON. We don’t yet know how he managed to wangle his way out of detention, though.
The day before their wedding, Stanley gives Anetka three bee boxes—Anetka’s mother kept bees and taught her how, and Anetka is astonished at how thoughtful and kind this gift is. The wedding is not as enjoyable as the gift is, though—she’s overly nervous, missing her mother, afraid of everything, distracted by Leon’s very presence. And the wedding night is glossed over other than it was “not what [she] expected it to be,” which is some VERY RACY TALK for a damn Dear America book. And after that? She writes no entries for a month, and when she starts again it’s to talk about how terrifyingly overwhelmed she is looking after a husband, three small children, and a house. She is decidedly unenthusiastic about married life, which only increases as Stanley refuses to hug her or touch her, and then makes fun of her diary—since after all, what would she have to write about? This is when we begin to learn the Truth About Stanley.
At the end of summer, Anetka harvests the honey from her bee boxes and collects almost thirty pounds, then goes to Hazleton to sell it. When Stanley finds out he’s upset with her for going all that way alone, since it could be dangerous, but once he finds out how much money she’s made, he’s much more amenable to the idea. Anetka gives him half the money (keeping the other half for herself), and he takes it and goes out to get drunk.
Anetka is suffering—she has no one to talk to about how she really feels, and Stanley harasses her and calls her a lazy wife. They put up sauerkraut together and Stanley gets drunk while doing it, and that night he kisses her (for once), and calls her Sophie—his first wife’s name. Poor Anetka. This is terrible. The next day Lidia goes into labour, so she goes over to help out, and when she gets home Stanley is upset with the lack of dinner and waves her diary in her face, calling her lazy again. It’s painful to read about how hard she tries and how little respect she gets and how truly miserable she is at home. The money never goes far enough, and with Christmas coming Stanley doesn’t seem to care that his daughters won’t get any Christmas presents.
Just before Christmas that year, at Lidia’s son’s christening party, there’s a fight. Stanley punches a man in the face, and then suddenly men are throwing themselves everywhere. Anetka puts seven stitches into Stanley’s face while the men talk about how much the Americans hate them and how much they all hate each other, and Anetka doesn’t understand why they’re even there.
Anetka’s father brings Leon home for Christmas dinner, which ends up being a big talk about unionization at the mines, and Leon points out that most miners spend more money on beer than union dues would ever end up being. Union talk is pretty hot in the mines, but it doesn’t particularly register on Anetka’s radar because to her it’s just something else to spend money on that they don’t have.
In January the girls come down with a bug all at the same time, and Anetka is nearly run off her feet looking after them, sick herself, and trying to keep up with the normal chores at the same time. Stanley comes home and starts hollering at her about wasting money and time, and Anetka has had enough and starts hollering back at him in a righteous fury. “What an unlucky wife I am. I get a husband who says, Kocham cie [I love you] to his dead wife in the middle of the night. Well, I can’t be Sophie. I am Anetka.” It’s a thing of beauty.
The next couple of days Stanley seems to have turned over a new leaf—he helps with the girls and kisses her once in a while, but the following Friday the Black Maria stops in front of their house because Stanley was killed in a roof collapse.
Anetka faints, and then comes to crying for “my children!” and it’s very touching and painful all at the same time. When they lay out Stanley in their living room, Anetka promises him that he’ll look after their daughters—but she wishes he had put in an extra prop for the roof. After the funeral one of the company men comes by to tell her that Stanley was in debt by nearly a hundred dollars. She has nowhere near this kind of money, so she takes in three boarders to keep things together. Things continue to go along terribly for her—the girls are devastated by losing their father, they have no money, she’s miserable looking after three girls, three boarders, and her father and brother. All of this before she’s sixteen!
One of the boarders proposes marriage to her, telling her that it breaks his heart to see her working herself to death looking after them all and he was an orphan himself, but she vows never to marry again unless she finds someone who will love her back. Lidia tells her that she can’t do it alone, but Anetka rants that she doesn’t need another man—she didn’t want the one she had!
But she ends up with another one when she finds Leon half-dead in a ditch in March, and the men drag him home bruised and bleeding. Someone beat him up for his talk about unions—that’s all they know—and it frightens Anetka and Lidia and the other women in the town. But once he’s recovered, much to her surprise, Leon helps her around the house and she begins to forget that he was once a soldier of the Czar.
The governor of Pennsylvania sends a committee to speak with the mine workers in Hazleton one day, and the coal companies call them undesirable foreigners who are simply striking for no reason. The stress and the fear of the strikers gets to Anetka, and when Leon finally asks what’s wrong, everything just comes spilling out and she sobs about how terrible everything is. But Leon keeps helping out, even when the news about strikers keeps getting worse and worse. Anetka’s father takes out his first papers towards becoming an American citizen, but he’s still years away from getting any protection.
In an effort to make some more money, Anetka makes more bee balm to take to the store in Hazleton. On their way home, they see some American boys throwing rocks at their cat, and Violet runs after them yelling at them to stop. The boys start throwing rocks at them, and one hits Violet in the face, and Anetka loses her mind screaming at the boys and running at them. For the first time, Violet calls her Mama, and Anetka begins to think that she might win her over at last.
Things get worse and worse at the mines as they take more and more money from the miners’ wages, and more men are threatening to strike. By the middle of August three thousand men are striking and it’s only a matter of time. Leon is active in the pro-union groups, preaching nonviolent resistance, but it’s hard to convince the others that they’ll be safe. Everyone is on edge, everyone is frightened, and Anetka is unstrung by the fear in the house. She realizes she really does love Leon when he kisses her the day the strike reaches Lattimer—the same day there are shots fired at the strikers.
Anetka flies up the street through the unarmed men lying there with blood pouring out of them, and Jerzy—Lidia’s husband—is killed. Fifteen men are killed and thirty-two injured, she can’t find Leon, and Anetka spends the day stomping around her kitchen frightening all the men in the house. “They think I am a madwoman. Well, I am. I am madder than I have ever been in my whole life. I am mad at Leon, at the Sheriff and his men, and at God, who never seems to answer yes to any of my prayers.” God, it’s hard to read.
Lidia says she is going home—she’s had enough of America—and that her parents might take her back, or Jerzy’s might. Anetka can’t even bring herself to go to Mass that Sunday and stays home—where she sees Leon stumbling home with a bandage wrapped around him. She runs out to meet him, clinging to him, and writes “Some prayers do get answered yes after all.”
Anetka and Leon are married two months later and have a daughter of their own, and Leon continues to do union work and Anetka continues to raise bees. All of their daughters marry and they have sixteen children between them, and although Anetka never became a citizen, Leon did. Jozef was killed during the First World War at twenty-nine. Lidia returned to Poland with her children.
Rating: A. No quibbles on this one. I know it’s near and dear to my heart because so much of it reminds me of my own family, but it’s extremely well-written, wrenching, and deals with much more mature material than most DA books do. Anetka is a strong character who doesn’t cross the border into a caricature, and all of the other characters are well-rounded. Even Stanley, who is the main antagonist, is not a soulless evil villain. The mining strike bits are not shoehorned in but incorporated as part of the story that really does affect the characters. I have no complaints with this one, my only question was whether to give it an A or an A+.