As a Pittsburgh native recently returned to the region and looking to dig back into the local experience, I decided the family saga and local classic Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell (DB28054) would be an appropriate place to start. The unseasonably warm early fall we’ve been experiencing has led the title to be even more meaningful than I originally anticipated.
The four-part novel brings early American industrial working class experiences to a personal level — it weaves back and forth through the history of the steel industry in Western Pennsylvania and the intimate details of the lives of one fictional family over three generations. As a casual history hobbyist and a romantic at heart, I’ve always felt that I learn and remember details better through anecdote and personal narrative. This saga brings to life all of the landmark experiences that come to mind when a 21st century reader imagines the late 19th and early 20th centuries with vivid detail, and unforgettable highs and lows. Immigration and the hardships that come with it? Certainly. Tasting the American dream through hard work and perseverance? Of course! Dangerous work environments, low wages and clashes with the company owners? You bet. Consumption, near starvation, and untimely demise? Sadly yes, yes, and yes. It’s no wonder that this 1941 novel has maintained its allure and spot in the classroom to this day.
If you find yourself intrigued by Western Pennsylvania historical fiction like I am, here’s a list of some of the next titles I look forward to exploring:
The Forest and the Fort, by Hervey Allen
During the French and Indian wars, Salathiel Albine is stolen by Indians in the forests of Pennsylvania and brought up as a Shawnee chieftain’s son. Later as a young man he is returned to the white people at Fort Pitt.
Steel Ashes, by Karen Cercone
Pittsburgh’s South Side, 1905. Police detective Milo Kachigan joins forces with social worker and political activist Helen Sorby to investigate a mysterious tenement fire that claims the lives of two poor immigrants, only to find their case hindered by the city’s corrupt political machine. Some violence. 1997.
If you’re interested in the modern immigrant experience in the United States, check out the Carnegie Library’s film series.