First novel about a young girl in a Pennsylvania mill town who grows up prematurely by discovering a family secret laid to rest years before.
Drue Heinz winner Block (stories: Destination Known, 2001) takes us to Hyde Bend in the 1940s, a place where all the fathers worked in the steel mill, all the mothers kept house, and everybody knew everybody else’s business. The narrator (unnamed), in her early teens, is a bright but sheltered child whose life is centered on the parish church, where she and her younger brother Martin go to school and her mother cooks for the priest. Her father works the nightshift at the mill and isn’t home much, and the narrator stands in for him somewhat by looking after her brother and keeping him out of trouble. No one in town has a lot money except for Swatka Pani, the miserly old lady who owns most of Hyde Bend’s apartments and has a heart blacker than Allegheny anthracite. When the narrator notices that her mother has begun pawning small items from the house—even her beloved, expensive icon of the Black Madonna—she assumes that her father has been spending the rent money on drink, and she persuades a local butcher to hire her as delivery girl to make ends meet. Anyone who makes deliveries all day will learn a lot about people, of course, and the narrator makes the acquaintance of the creepiest woman in town: a lady whose son grew up to become a priest but committed suicide not long after taking over the local parish. When Swatka Pani is murdered, the mysterious lady tells the narrator who did it—and a few other things beside. Is she a crazy recluse—or the only sane woman in town?
Sort of a Polish-American Peyton Place: a touching portrait of childhood innocence on a collision course with worldly experience—though it ultimately goes far, far over the edge.