Monday, January 01, 2007

Now You See It...Stories from Cokesville by Bathsheba Monk

These stories can stand alone, but are better taken as a collection that adds up to a novel. Cokesville is a steel mill town in Pennsylvania, and these stories describe the town and its inhabitants during years of great change, from 1949 through 1994. Vietnam is a recurring theme, as is the disintegration of a small town that occurs when the major industry shuts down. Cokesville is slowly dying, and then, in a brilliant piece of fictional theatre, disappears altogether. This last bit occurs offstage, and plays out so subtly that you could miss it if you weren’t paying attention. Hence the book’s title.

While the book’s larger theme is serious, the stories are studded with quirky characters and funny interludes. The story called Mrs. Herbinko’s Birthday Party is whimsical and will leave you smiling. The book reminded me of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, by Dean Bakapoulis, another really wonderful book about working class families struggling to adjust to enormous changes. Both these books have a lot of heart.

This is Bathsheba Monk’s first book. In April 2006 she published a piece in the New York Times Magazine called Coal Miner's Granddaughter about her experiences teaching writing at a community college in the town where she grew up, in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I read that article with interest, but apparently she offended a lot of locals with what they considered her condescending tone. I felt that her piece was honest and open. Perhaps the same people will be offended by this book, but I hope not. I couldn't find an online review, except for this link to an NPR interview. Here is a link to her web site.

(Book 54, 2006)


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