"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 dread.
"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 first read.
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 glass."
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.
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