This novel is like a mirror, reflecting family histories throughout Western Pennsylvania both the beautiful and the shameful. This suspenseful story jumped off the pages for me as the characters visited places I know well: McKeesport, Shadyside, the Grant Building, Uniontown, and more. I especially enjoyed how author John Hoerr weaves in conversations routine to Pittsburgh dinner tables even today: the dangers deep inside coal mines, the intense procedures in steel mills, immigrants struggling to understand each other, and the panic over infamous crime bosses hiding in Pittsburgh shadows around the time of the Great Depression.
Hoerr sets his first novel, Monongahela Dusk, in the Mon Valley in 1937. The suspense builds after an unlikely alliance is formed between two men– traveling beer salesman Pete Bonner and Joe Miravich who’s a blacklisted coal miner. Their paths cross on a foggy morning near Uniontown when Bonner accidentally hits Miravich with his car. No one is hurt and apologetically the businessman gives the rebel miner a ride up the mountain. Soon they get into trouble when they are attacked by two private detectives at a rest stop and then thrown in jail. They overhear a plot to kill a national union leader in Pittsburgh and make their way to downtown Pittsburgh to warn him. That warning will haunt them for decades.
As Western Pennsylvania makes its way through the labor movement maze, Bonner and Miravich are trying to make it through a maze of their own. While they choose very different paths, one as an overly optimistic businessman and the other as an aggressive union organizer, their past always brings those different paths back together. A mysterious man who conspires with racketeers tracks their every move and tries to kill them. They work to maintain stable home lives and protect their wives while they deal with floundering businesses, angry union members, ethnic diversity, and unavoidable mobsters all while trying to figure out who is behind their nightmare.
As a female I would have enjoyed more time spent on the romance and heartbreak the main characters experienced with their wives. Also, I’m not sure how a reader less familiar with our region would tolerate the detail especially toward the end. That said, I found myself lost in the story and amazed at how much I learned about what our grandparents and great-grandparents experienced in Pittsburgh. Although just a novel, I think it’s a must read for anyone in Western Pennsylvania wanting to better understand the circumstances that built our region and ourselves.