How it was in a Pennsylvania steel town in 1912, when a boy waited impatiently to turn 16 and take on a ""man job"" in the mills. As assistant foreman, Karl Kerner's father earns a decent wage, but Mayo Culley next door, father of Karl's idol the ""mighty"" Jame Culley, has been out of work since a mill accident to his hand. On the other side lives Karl's bookish friend Andy Stulak, whose father, like the other ""hunkies,"" will never be promoted from the lowest rank. Karl's Irish-bom mother Maggie Rose hates the slovenly Culleys and blames them for infecting the Kerners with the diphtheria that killed two of her children; thus when Jame and Karl's 17-year-old sister Kathleen begin courting, they must do it in secret. Within this gritty environment there is much astir, with Jame Culley's daredevil high spirits, Andy's decision to run away from the town's injustice and his stingy father's ill nature, Karl's father's brief stint as chief of police (his honesty gains and loses him the job), and Maggie Rose's terrible carrying on and eventual reconciliation when Jame and Kathleen elope. As for Karl, just a few months short of his 16th birthday, he becomes enamored of his beautiful new 24-year-old teacher Yulyona Petrov, who seems to take a special interest in his staying in school. To please and hopefully win her, he decides to stay--but then takes off on the rail with Andy when he sees her sneaking out of the mill superintendent's bedroom. After a seasoning taste of the world on a lake boat and in a hobo jungle, Andy goes on to Gary to do union organizing and Karl returns home for his birthday, relieved to learn that Yulyona and the mill head are married (they've kept it a secret so she can teach) and determined now, despite Yulyona's continuing pleas, to quit school and improve himself through the work route. It's the proper decision in the context, and, overall, a satisfactory if conventional historical novel--projecting with some vitality both the shaping mill-town background and the individual dramas.