Playing St. Barbara is the debut novel of Marian Szczepanski and it’s a powerful one that will stick with you long after you turn the last page. Marian takes us back to a time in history that I’ve not read much about and that is of life in a coal mining town back in the 1930’s during the depression. She takes us back in time and immerses us not only in her character’s lives but also in the atmosphere of time and place. This novel can feel quite bleak but it also shows the power of relationships between mothers and daughters and the courage it takes to once again love yourself enough to change your future.
The novel is told from the viewpoints of the three daughters Deidre, Norah, and Katie along with their mother Clare and always in the background is their father Fin, a very volatile and abusive man who handles the hard life of a miner and the poverty of the times by turning to alcohol. Deidre is one to stand up to her father and she takes it to the extreme when she decides to take up with a boy from the Company police. Katie seemed to be the delicate one to me wanting to dedicate her life to the convent but still loving the boy from her neighborhood that’s always been sweet on her. Now Norah is the one with secrets but also a desire to be something more than just another girl from the wrong end of town. However her secrets keep her tethered to home and her mother. Clare just made me sad. Overpowered by a man who took away her identity and life she struggles with secrets from the past that have her believing this is the life she deserves. Each of these women must learn to find their own way to a better life. Throughout it all the legend of St. Barbara lingers.
Clare was my favorite of the women even though I got so frustrated with her for enduring the abuse she did although she had her reasons. I think it’s hard to imagine but you have to take yourself back in time and feel what it would be like to be living such a hard life in a coal mining town such as Clare was. It’s a life full of hard work and fear of losing your men in the mines. Add to that an abusive husband and that life of hardship multiplies tenfold. Clare needed to find her voice again but does she have the strength after all the hardships she’s endured? Or will she just accept her lot in life?
I enjoyed this novel. It transported me to another time and place where I became invested in the characters and the lifestyle of this coal mining town. Playing St. Barbara is a great piece of historical fiction and I’ll be looking forward to reading more from Marian Szczepanski!
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher. No compensation was received for this review and all opinions are my own.