Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepanski


Paperback: 400 pages

  • Publisher: High Hill Press (August 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1606530771
  • ISBN-13: 978-1606530771


Author Marian Szczepanski grew up in the Pennsylvania coal mining area where Playing St. Barbara is set. Curiosity about her family’s heritage lead her to research the personal stories of her ancestors, stories forming the basis of the plot of this novel. Always eager to learn about history, as well as a passionate reader from early childhood, Szczepanski began writing in college, majoring in journalism. It was only after the birth of her daughters, and a move to Switzerland, that she began study for her MFA, earned through Warren Wilson College.

Playing St. Barbara is about strength and struggles, characters of high and low morality, similar in theme to much fiction set during the hardscrabble 1930s. The framework revolves around the lives of families caught in the violent opposition to unionization begun in this decade and fought against by use of the force exerted by the Ku Klux Klan. Before this novel I didn’t realize the Klan operated in the North, one of the more interesting aspects of Szczepanski’s tale, for me personally.As a native southerner, my knowledge of these dregs of humanity grew out of their notorious lynchings of African-Americans in the South. What an eye-opener learning their reach extended beyond that.

It’s for the history I most admire the book, the same reason I enjoy the small bit of historical fiction I read. I say small bit, because it’s a genre I’m not fond of. I dislike the feeling of not knowing where the facts end and the fiction begins, preferring to read nonfiction to get the unadulterated truth. However, this book gave me very good general insight into the atmosphere of its particular time and place. Knowing the author had done so much family research gave the novel credence. It’s personal stories that tell the truth behind historical fact.

The wife and daughters in the story – Clare, Norah, Dierdre and Katie – of one of the Pennsylvania coal miners, Fin  Sweeney, narrate the story, giving them the opportunity to speak as members of the sex lower in the social order of the 1930s. Unsurprisingly, their lives were filled with strife and often tragedy. Coal mining is a dangerous profession. As with so many professions, it can go hand in hand with a disposition toward alcoholism, as a means of escape from the back-breaking and life-threatening work. Indeed, Fin himself is an alcoholic, taking out his rage on Clare. Feeling powerless himself, he uses the one person lower to bear the brunt of his rage. It is a sad universal truth this happens all too often.

The title of the novel refers to St. Barbara, patron saint of miners and anyone who works with explosives, a saint revered by the novel’s families. Each year one young woman in the village is chosen to play the part of this saint, telling the woman’s life story. As dull and dreary a life as they lead, this is one of the highlights of their young lives. Sad to say, they didn’t have much in the way of possessions or a break from the hard work of helping with housework and  raising of their siblings, so this was a big deal. In so many ways, their young lives mirrored that of the beleaguered saint, the main theme of Playing St. Barbara. Little wonder each desired the attention the lead role would provide.

As a whole, I already stated I enjoyed the history most of all. The lives of Clare and her girls were representative of so many other books I’ve read featuring women in similar situations, rendering them not really standouts in comparison. The weakness of the novel was the lack of clear definition between the characters, the sameness becoming a bit wearisome. If the book had compelled me more, if it had the sort of complexity that prose of greater depth displays, I may have made a greater effort to keep track of who was who. I read it for the story, absorbed the history, and will likely not retain much of it.

The book will appeal mostly to book discussion groups. It’s very much a “woman’s novel,” slanted toward the lives and hardships of women in the 1930s. For all this, it’s a decent novel, just not the sort I’d have picked up on my own, had it not been on this blog tour. I enjoyed pieces, and the prose itself was strong, just not groundbreaking.


Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review the book. Please check their website for other bloggers’ thoughts on Playing St. Barbara, as well as many other book blog tours.





4 thoughts on “Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepanski

  1. Pingback: Marian Szczepanski, author of Playing St. Barbara, on tour January 2014 | TLC Book Tours

  2. St. Barbara is a new-to-me saint but she sounds fascinating. I mean, how exactly does one become the patron saint of explosives? There must be a very sad story involved.

    Thanks for being on the tour!


  3. A very good and balanced review. Too much of history has been written by men so it always good to get a woman`s view. It being about the lives of a mining community makes it interesting when written from a female perspective.


  4. Pingback: Book Review: Playing St Barbara by Marian Szczepanski | Giraffe Days | Giraffe Days

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