"A Woman's Role" by Carol Moessinger. Book Review
"A Woman's Role" by Carol Moessinger is a
heartfelt memoir of a place, a people, and a time too little treated in the
American literary canon, or in films, academia, or the wider popular culture.
"A Woman's Role" introduces the reader to "Bohunk" immigrants
and their descendants working Pennsylvania's coal mines in the 1950s. These
people were Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, Lithuanian, and other peasants from
Eastern Europe. I want every Polish American to buy and read this book, but I
also want those curious about a slice of America that they haven't learned
about from school, films or other novels to read "A Woman's Role."
"A Woman's Role" follows the life of young
Celina Pasniewska. Celina is the granddaughter of a Polish peasant immigrant
woman. Her father and her brother are coal miners. Her mother is a workhorse
who cooks on a coal stove, cans produce and keeps chickens and pigs.
Celina dreams of a life beyond her coal town. Her dreams have
no easy or obvious route to realization. Her parents insist that she work at
home as well as at her place of paid employment, Duxbury's Department store. Tomas,
Celina's father, orders her about like a maid: make coffee; bring me ham. Her
mother relies on her to be her helper. Her mother insists that Celina must not
move away. Local men find Celina attractive, and if she marries them, she will
never leave her hometown.
Celina is a Bohunk, and, as such, she is not a
"Johnny Bull," someone descended from the British Isles. Some look
down on her for that. Too, Celina is a woman in the 1950s, when America was
retiring Rosie the Riveter and women were expected to be domestic goddesses. Celina
must navigate her desire for love and romance, her thirst for an intellectual
life, her craving to be free and independent, her traditional Polish Catholic
immigrant family and their demands, and her heartache over a lost love.
Celina's boyfriend died while serving in the US military in Korea.
"A Woman's Role"'s cover calls the book "a
1950s romance." I think some will read it, and enjoy it, that way. I see
the book differently, though. To me it read like a memoir of a small town
Polish girl. Romance is part of the book, but it isn't the largest part. And
men will enjoy this book every bit as much as women. Celina is the main
character, but her father is a believable coal mining man. His struggle for
dignity and satisfaction in life is as important as Celina's.
"A Woman's Role" has the episodic structure of
a memoir. Events are strung out like beads; each event teaches the reader
something about what life was like for an ambitious Polish American woman in
the 1950s. Celina has that conversation with her mother about her hopes for the
future versus her mother's hopes – they are irreconcilable, and one woman's
hopes must give way so that the other's may be realized. Will it be the
younger, or the older? Celina experiences workplace harassment, and workplace
diminishment because she is a woman, and because she is a Bohunk. There is a
Polish wedding – the community's greatest joy; there is a mine accident – its greatest
"A Woman's Role" is written in a straightforward,
highly accessible style. I would recommend this book not only to adults, but
also to young adult readers. It does not exercise high literary ambitions. This
is a book that wants to connect with the reader and make its message plain on a
Moessinger's great gift is vivid description, for example
this passage, "The faint scent of incense and milted bees wax candles
clung to the church's cool, dimply lit sanctuary. The cavernous, echoing
sacredness of the place encouraged the parishioners to speak in hushed whispers.
Celina genuflected and slid into the pew beside her parents as dappled beams of
colored light streamed through the figures of angels and saints frozen in the stained
The ethnographic details of the book made certain scenes
most memorable to me. Moessinger brings to life a 1950s era Bohunk kitchen.
There is the coal stove, the damper, the process of taking a season's harvest
of apples and reducing them to apple sauce. Three generations of Polish women,
and a family friend, sit around the table peeling and coring apples. The son
takes the cores and peels out to the family pig.
Moessinger's characters refer to Americans whose
ancestors came from the British Isles – their coal town's more privileged
citizens – as "John Bulls." My father was a Polish American coal
miner when he was a child. He didn't mine for long – he hated it. Children like
my dad were used because mine bosses want to exploit the shortest tunnels
possible, tunnels into which only children could fit. My father called
Americans of British descent "Johnny Bulls."
There is a scene that touched me especially deeply. Celina's
mother orders and begs her daughter not to move away from their coal town. She
talks about the loneliness of having grown up with no grandparents, no aunts
nor uncles. Her parents had left Poland, alone, and started new lives in
America. Her father had lost one brother who, upon emigrating from Poland with
his brother, went to South America. That brother was never heard from again. This
passage touched me deeply, as I, too, grew up without real grandparents. My
surviving grandparents never learned English, and I had little contact with
them. I also had Old Country relatives I heard tales about, but never met.
For me this book, given its episodic structure, lacked a
strong plot drive. I'm not sure the novel is Moessinger's strongest genre.
Given her obvious ethnography knowledge, and her urge to educate – there are
brief but strongly didactic passages – I think Moessinger's next literary
project should be a straightforward ethnography.
Buy "A Woman's Role" at Amazon, here.
First congratulations to Carol on her book. I applaud anyone who can get there work out there.ReplyDelete
Another great review Di.
No spies, cryptography, bombs, airplanes, or explosions so while it's not likely on my particular reading list it sounds like you pointed out some really great points beyond the romance that would make it a good read.