Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, Barbara J. Taylor's debut novel, is one of the most compelling books I've ever read. It's a novel set in Scranton, PA's coal mining community in 1913. As a coal miner's granddaughter, this story resonated with me. I gained insight into what my grandfather's life must have been like. He died of lung cancer, the scourge of the mines, at age 52.
Like that of other coal mining towns, Scranton's culture was taken over by the coal industry back in the early 1900's. Mining families lived in drafty company houses and shopped in company stores. There was a constant threat of mining accidents...when the whistle blew, everyone ran to the mines to see who was lost in a cave-in. And if a father was killed in a mining accident, the oldest son, even if only eight years old, had to work in the mines as a breaker boy or the family would be homeless.
This is the backdrop of the Morgan family story in Taylor's novel. Mr. Morgan is a coal miner with ambitions of moving up to supervisory position at the mines, studying mining courses. Then an accident left nine-year-old Daisy Morgan severely burned. The novel tells the story of how her family copes with grief after her death.
An unforgettable story of loss unfolds as the inconsolable mother is seduced by grief into a crippling depression, almost to the point of no return. The father's descent into alcoholism was portrayed with compassion. Eight-year-old Violet's grief and guilt thread through the novel: it was she who threw the celebratory sparkler in the air that landed on her sister's dress and caught fire. Neighbors and school mates whisper, "Murderer, killer."
Violet's grief, guilt, feelings of abandonment, and despair are buoyed by the anticipation of Billy Sunday's revival meetings. Sunday, a famous professional baseball player and evangelist, began his talks by running onto the stage, swinging a ball bat and declaring, "I'm here to make a home run for God." His lively tent revivals of yore offer fascinating glimpses of the culture. Underscoring the prevalence of faith and religion, the familiar lines of old church hymns are woven through the story. I often found myself singing along.
When Violet's best friend, Stanley, age nine, is drafted into the mines, he is promoted from lowly breaker to mule boy within a week due to his innate skills with animals. Sophie is a skittish mule who was on death row because she refused to do anything useful. Stanley saves Sophie. He is thrilled: "Mule nipper was a hell of a lot better than bendin' over pickin' through slate ten hours a day." Later Sophie saves Violet and Stanley. I highly recommend this book.
Though these descriptions sound bleak, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is a story of hope and the joy of survival. A community of well-developed characters, subtle wit, and plot twists create a haunting story that will stay with the reader long after reading this novel.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Barbara J. Taylor lives within two blocks of where she grew up; she teaches English in the Pocono Mt. School District. This is her first novel. Visit her website.
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