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Nine Bells at the Breaker

An Immigrant's Story

Reviewer: Sally Boss

Nine Bells at the Breaker
An Immigrant's Story

By Geraldine Glodek. Iowa City: The Barn Peg Press (, 1998. 248 pages. Paper. $15.00.

By any standard, this is a major Polish American novel. The story takes place in the Pennsylvania coal mining region before World War I. At the end of the story, the war breaks out providing additional twist to the plot. The main hero, Casimir (vel Charlie) Turek, is a Gdansk-born son of Polish immigrants who work in the mines. Casimir becomes a miner at age 15 and is 23 at the beginning of the story. He falls in love with the daughter of another Polish immigrant family but is afraid of rejection. He fears that his lowly status might prevent Victoria from accepting him, and so he masquerades as a mine boss well into the marriage until he is discovered and embarrassed thereby. This, plus numerous other secrets he keeps (he lies about being a native-born American and pretends he does not know Polish) make for a miserable life. Add to this the fact that in Casimir's family mental illness was a recurring problem, and you get a story replete with drama and tragedy.

The miners live in dreadful poverty. They have no insurance or old age pensions, and children as young as seven work in the mines. It is a work-or-starve environment, but nobody complains: the miners are too destitute to afford the energy necessary to organize protests, and too well fed to drop dead from starvation (malnutrition rather than starvation plagues them). The miners' wives are a throng of Mother Courages. Their health destroyed by hard work, they additionally suffer mistreatment by husbands while their pregnancies are ill attended to. Casimir means well, but he slips all the time. His slow descent into madness is skillfully presented, as little hints at the beginning grow into nightmares later.

Michael Novak once said that no one has ever described what went through the minds of those gloomy Polish coal miners in Pennsylvania during the years of hardship and humiliation. Indeed. It seems that while the memory of specific humiliations faded into oblivion, a sense of shame and resentment remained, and it continues to plague Polish American males in particular. Casimir Turek is Legion, to paraphrase Adam Mickiewicz. He embodies the deep shame which Polish blue collar workers have harbored because of their background, and he exemplifies disadvantages they experienced because they did not speak English and came from a ‘suspect' region of the world: neither Asiatics nor Europeans, they were difficult to categorize and identify. It is not that Casimir committed a crime and tries to hide it: no, he does not feel guilty but ashamed. Psychologists tell us that a sense of guilt is generated by a transgression, whereas a sense of shame, by standards not being met. Casimir feels that he somehow ‘should' be rich to impress Victoria; that he should have been born in Iowa instead of Gdansk; that he should have been a white collar worker rather than a dirty miner. He has not met the standards, he is ‘worse' than others, and he is mortified by this in good Catholic fashion (the miners are church-going Catholics, of course). Shame prevents Casimir from leading a normal life.

Curiously enough, the novel's women are free of that crushing sense of inferiority. Casimir's wife Victoria accomplishes superhuman feats of endurance without losing either her sanity or her sense of self. An interesting twist of the plot or a social comment?

This book confirms my observation that members of the American-born Polonia often feel uncomfortable in American society. They do not feel an integral part of it. They seem to be possessed of a deep feeling of inferiority. It often happens that the Polish Americans organizations hide in their ethnic ghettoes rather than try to educate others about who they are and where they come from. And whence the compulsion to hammer on some detail of tribal history during Pol-Am meetings, instead of dealing with the here and now of American society and the contemporary world? How many Polish organizations have articulated public views on matters of importance to present day public life in America, such as public vs. private school issues, faith-based initiatives, redistricting, electoral choices? Polish American organizations tend to stick to the pierogi-and-music activities. By far the largest percentage of Americans of Polish background expresses their shame by simply staying away from things Polish, by concealing their background and trying to blend into a nondescript ‘Americanness' because this makes life easier.

The explanation I once heard from a prominent Polish American was so sophomoric that it achieved a sort of absurd distinction of its own. Why, he said, we are not obliged to cultivate things Polish. We can choose to do so, but we are not obliged to do so. The appalling shallowness of this declaration shows that this particular individual was so overpowered by his desire to please (how Catholic!) those outside the Central European ghetto that he forgot that there are things that ennoble every human being, and loyalty to one's background and courage to proclaim it is among those things. Of course one is not obliged, legally speaking, to stand up for anything. As long as one is not caught breaking the law, one can do what one pleases. But only at the expense of one's dignity as a person, and one's full humanity.

Polish Americans seem to be afraid of politics. They live their private lives in fear of politics. They somehow fear that they would be ‘exposed,' and declared unfit for either local politics or international affairs. They seem to feel that politics is not for them. They are extraordinarily afraid of ridicule and hurt which are inevitable by-products of any political activity. Their communal memory is replete with the hurt and loneliness of those harsh days before Social Security, before retirement pay, before workers' insurance and so on. Casimir and his Polish pals live their lives in gloomy silence. And it is this gloomy silence that present-day Polish Americans inherited from the likes of heroes Geraldine Glodek so skillfully presents.

The story of the Polish American families in Glodek's book engenders reflections about the necessity to break out of the mold. She transforms experience into words, allowing Polish Americans to know themselves. Glodek dares to verbalize the profound sense of inadequacy that established itself in the Polish subconscious. She is miles away from the sunny climate of Suzanne Strempek Shea's novels. Casimir Turek's tragic suicide is caused by that sense of inadequacy. The fact that no one extended a helping hand to him suggests that atomization of society under communism was not unique, and that in America in the early twentieth century a similar atomization was afoot among poor whites. The fiction that white America has always had it good is just that--fiction. The tongue-tied white ethnics suffered in ways that have not been articulated in American literature. As regards Glodek's novel, the brutality of life in the coal mining towns of Pennsylvania has never been better described--or condemned.

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The Sarmatian Review
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