6 Great Books Set in Pennsylvania That We Love

6 Great Books Set in Pennsylvania That We Love

Thursday, 4 February, 2021

As states go, Pennsylvania doesn’t have a lot of flash. But every four years, it becomes one of the most talked-about places in the US, thanks to its whopping 20 electoral votes.

But when it’s not an election year, the Keystone State might be best known for its Philly cheesesteaks, Hershey chocolate, and sweet, sweet funnel cakes. Its bookended by Pittsburgh in the west and Philadelphia in the east, with plenty of farmland and forests in between.

Here are six books set in Pennsylvania that took us there on the page: two memoirs that go deep into the unique culture of western and eastern Pennsylvania, two novels set in Philadelphia (one dark, one light), a literary thriller starring, perhaps, the world’s biggest introvert, and a most unusual and haunting photography collection.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Pennsylvania: Political Player, Potato Chip Maker.

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Ways to Hide in Winter - Sarah St.Vincent

Ways to Hide in Winter
> Sarah St.Vincent

In this atmospheric novel, two characters from opposite sounds of the world — both vulnerable and in various degrees of danger — turn to each other out of desperation, loneliness, and a recognition of a like soul. Their uneasy alliance plays out in unexpected ways during a blustery winter in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Kathleen is 26 and newly widowed. She hides away in a tiny convenience store on the edge of a state park, cooking hamburgers and scooping ice cream for the deer hunters and hikers who pass through. But it’s winter now, and the vacationers are long gone. She revels in her personal exile and the repetition of her routine. Until one day, it’s blown open by the arrival of a stranger. What is a young man from Uzbekistan — with flimsy shoes and empty pockets — doing in this isolated, rural place?

Despite her methodical means of cutting herself from most other humans, Kathleen is intrigued by Daniil. The two of them — introverted, secretive, jumpy — develop a complex and tenuous relationship. As the story progresses, Kathleen’s history is revealed, and her alternating bouts of crippling fear and devil-may-care risk-taking begin to make sense. Daniil slowly reveals that he, too, has been keeping devastating secrets that put them both in danger. Can Kathleen protect him? Can she protect herself?

The propulsive plot and remote setting keep the suspense at a tense hum. But Kathleen and Daniil’s backstories transform this thriller into a nuanced examination of violence, rural America, and the quest for redemption in the wake of tragedy. {more}

There were two lakes in the park, Laurel and Fuller, both of which stood where the quarries had once been. When I was a child, bits of blue and green slag from the old iron smelter had still washed up on the sand that had been trucked in. My brother and I would walk along the shore and collect them, along with pebbles and snail shells and shining fragments of charcoal. Laurel was the shallower of the two and was always crowded in summer—small children with their mothers, Boy Scouts, softball teams, fishermen. Laurel had pavilions and grills, fire pits… Fuller was where, when I was sixteen, I would lie on the sand late at night, long after the park had closed, and look up at the stars in their endless, stoic expanse. — Sarah St.Vincent

An American Childhood - Annie Dillard

An American Childhood
> Annie Dillard

The sentences crackle with energy in Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard’s memoir of growing in 1950s Pittsburgh. Buckle up for a rollicking trip through her childhood with writing so good, it might make you nostalgic for your own hometown.

Dillard’s powers of observation and recall — and, perhaps, imagination — are shocking. She nails what it’s like to be a child of five and 10 and 15. To feel the wonder and fear and beauty of waking up to the world.

Constructed as a series of sort-of essays, this book invites you to dip in and out, spending time with young Annie as she explores the external world and her internal landscape. She takes us to the Pittsburgh of her childhood and its vibrant downtown, and into her fantasies about the French and Indian War, her fascination for drawing, and her fervent, passing interests in rocks, bugs, and the French symbolists.

Her memoir is the story of an all-American girl, growing up mid-20th century — and the making of an award-winning writer who would charm the world with her words. {more}

Now we sat in the dark dining room, hushed. The big snow outside, the big snow on the roof, silenced our words and the scrape of our forks and our chairs. The dog was gone, the world outside was dangerously cold, and the big snow held the houses down and the people in. Behind me, tall chilled windows gave out onto the narrow front yard and the street. A motion must have caught my mother’s eye; she rose and moved to the windows, and father and I followed. There we saw the young girl, the transfigured Jo Ann Sheehy, skating along under the streetlight. She was turning on ice skates inside the streetlight’s yellow cone of light — illuminated and silent. She tilted and spun… Distant over the street, the night sky was moonless and foreign, a frail, bottomless black, and the cold stars speckled it without moving. — Annie Dillard

Long Bright River - Liz Moore

Long Bright River
> Liz Moore

You could describe this remarkable novel as a crime story, but that would discount how it weaves a rich story of sibling love and rivalry into the structure of the police procedural. Set in modern Philadelphia, this is an up-close examination of the damage and salvation of family.

Most of the action takes place in Kensington. Once a working-class neighborhood centered around family, it’s been mostly abandoned to squatters in empty rowhouses, chasing their addiction to heroin.

And that’s where we meet two women, bonded by blood and separated by circumstance. Mickey Fitzpatrick is a 30-something patrol officer in the Philadelphia Police Department; her younger sister Kacey is a sex worker who supports her heroin habit by turning tricks. They haven’t spoken in far too long, but then a string of murders occur in Mickey’s beat, and Kacey is nowhere to be found. Mickey worries that the next body she discovers will be her sister. So she vows to find Kacey and figure out who’s killing these women.

Author Liz Moore was inspired to write the novel after a writing assignment that took her to Kensington. She perfectly recreates the atmosphere of a large, Irish Catholic family in urban Philadelphia with all the cliques, long-held grudges, and secrets that circulate within families. The love is probably there, but even the best-intentioned people are tragically bad at expressing it. {more}

Some people do have trouble with Kensington, but to me, the neighborhood itself has become like a relative, slightly problematic but dear in the old-fashioned way that that word is sometimes used, treasured, valuable to me. — Liz Moore

Growing Up in Coal Country - Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Growing Up in Coal Country
> Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Inspired by the stories her inlaws told her around the dinner table, Susan Campbell Bartoletti mined the riches of newspapers, magazines, business records, crumbling photographs, and interviews to tell the story of 19th-century coal miners in northeastern Pennsylvania.

As you probably expect, working in the coal mines was brutal, back-breaking, and frequently lethal work. Most of the people doing it were newly-arrived immigrant men and their children. Their days began in the early dark of the morning, continued through the darkness of the mine shafts, and ended with the dark of exhaustion and dinner, only to fall into bed and do it again the next day.

But this book is not meant to be a horror story nor a cautionary tale. It’s an invitation to empathy and bravery. Bartoletti has said, ‘I hope that my work gives my readers courage — the courage to question and to think critically about history; courage to consider and respond to their social, political, and existential responsibilities; and, most of all, courage to stand up.’

This slim book tells a singularly American story of immigrant families determined to forge a new life in this rough-scrabble world. And it’s a well-told, emotionally resonant investigation of child labor so we can empathize and ensure it never happens again. {more}

In coal country, the workdays began before dawn. A thin icy blast from the breaker whistle roused sleeping children from the beds that they shared with their brothers and sisters. They ran downstairs to warm up by the kitchen coal stove. Their mother was busy stocking the coal, making breakfast, and packing tin lunch pails. Father and sons ate quickly, then got ready for work. The men dressed in coveralls and rubber boots. The boys pulled on caps and overcoats and laced up hobnailed boots. They grabbed their lunch pails and headed down the dark streets leading to the mines. — Susan Campbell Bartoletti

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas - Marie-Helene Bertino

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas
> Marie-Helene Bertino

Friendship, love, cocktails, and destiny collide at a jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas. It’s Christmas Eve Eve in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, and anything can happen.

Two days away from being ten, our heroine Madeleine is an ambitious, trash-talking, cigarette-smoking torch singer who’s trapped in the body of a precocious 9-year old. Her mother has died, and her father is so wrapped up in his own grief, he has nothing left for his daughter.

Madeleine’s mother was a dancer and singer; Madeleine’s inherited ability to sing like an angel, gives Madeleine purpose. She ditches her elementary school classes at Saint Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, then sets out on a mission to find Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her singing debut.

The sights and streets of Philadelphia leap off the page: Madeleine’s Catholic school, a café on the corner, snow drifting over Rittenhouse Square and Fairmount Park, the pulsing rhythm of jazz inside the club, and the strong sense of community that flourishes in old city neighborhoods. During one magical day and night, truths are revealed, hope is rekindled, and dreams come true. {more}

Madeleine prefers to spend this and every recess alone, singing scales under her breath, walking laps up and down the parking lot. Madeleine has no friends: Not because she contains a tender grace that fifth graders detect and loathe. Not because she has a natural ability that points her starward, though she does. Madeleine has no friends because she is a jerk. — Marie-Helene Bertino

Abandoned Pennsylvania - Janine Pendleton

Abandoned Pennsylvania
> Janine Pendleton

Photographer and author Janine Pendleton travels the world in search of beautiful desertion to document what’s left behind when people move on, and nature takes over. She’s explored derelict sites in 17 countries, but the relics of Pennsylvania had a particular appeal.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Pennsylvania was a posh up-and-comer. It was the Gilded Age when the revenue from coal and steel made possible elaborate building projects and public works. A few decades later, the bubble burst; churches, factories, schools, hospitals, and theaters were forsaken, their columns and domes left to deteriorate.

Pendleton’s striking color photographs are accompanied by evocative text that’s better than it needs to be. The photos could stand on their own, but she enhances the story — and the poignancy — by sharing first-hand details of visiting the sites, along with bits of history, lore, and legend. A discarded church is now ‘filled with pigeons.’ A former mayor’s office has ‘files and stationery littering the desk, and the room appears relatively untouched.’

Dilapidated but still vital and somehow regal, these treasures are fuel for the imagination and a reminder to see the beauty in the ordinary world around us. {more}

The cities of Pennsylvania are littered with abandoned churches, discarded as the small congregations merged together… There are forgotten theaters, which once hosted sell-out performances but now lie silent and lost… Old theme parks closed as their rides aged and the excitement they offered waned… One by one, these hidden treasures are lost as time, and the world moves on around them… The loss of history is something that always comes with a measure of sadness. This book explores the beauty that lies in these forgotten places, often hiding in plain sight on the streets of Pennsylvania. — Janine Pendleton

Top image courtesy of Jordan Faux/Unsplash.

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Pennsylvania history features coal mining, farming, big industry, and political power. It also leads the nation in potato chip production, pretzel bakeries, mushrooms, and meatpacking. All hail the Keystone State.
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