This is a transcription of Episode 23 — Pennsylvania.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Episode 23 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we get curious about Pennsylvania.
[old-timey song plays] — There comes a time when you get a kind of made just for Pennsylvania, then, mister, you pack your Russian car. And head for Pennsylvania, Joe.
Melissa: I grew up in Pennsylvania in a small town called Orwigsburg, named after the illustrious Orwig family, which always sounds like earwig to me. Earwigs are not nice bugs.
David: Not entirely sure that’s the tone we want to strike.
Melissa: OK. Go back.
Melissa: Oh, I grew up in Pennsylvania in a small town called Orwigsburg.
Melissa: I went to Blue Mountain High School. Go, Eagles!
David: You are Pennsylvania born and bred.
Melissa: I am. As our audience probably knows, we are planning to cover every U.S. state. But the inspiration for this Pennsylvania episode came two summers ago. We were home visiting my family, and we were looking for somewhere to go get a cup of coffee and have a little family meet up. And we discovered that there is this kind of hipster coffee shop in Pottsville called Pressed Coffee & Books. In the front is kind of a city-style café with lots of natural light. And they have books around and a vintage typewriter. And the back room is a used bookstore.
Melissa: Which was fantastic.
David: Yeah. And a place you would not expect those two things to be.
Melissa: And we found out that the coffee shop is in the former home of John O’Hara, who is a very well-respected literary author.
David: Second surprise of the day, third, really, that there was a well-respected author who grew up 20 minutes from where you you were and that we were in his home.
Melissa: Yeah. And then around the corner, another surprise, which we didn’t even know was there. We were going to get picked up by my dad, like we were 12. We’re waiting for my dad to come pick us up. And we found —
David: The statue of John O’Hara.
Melissa: It was amazing.Which made me realize there’s probably some more things I didn’t know about Pennsylvania. And here we are!
David: The endlessly mysterious land of Pennsylvania. [laughter]
Melissa: Let’s get into it.
David: All right. Let’s do it.
Melissa: OK, basics first. Pennsylvania is in the northeastern United States. It’s bordered by New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Ohio. Lots of border.
Melissa: The capital it is.
David: It’s really big. I remember driving from New York to Cincinnati when I was a kid. And the drive, I think, is about 12 hours. And it feels like you’re in Pennsylvania for like 18 hours. [laughter] It’s just forever.
Melissa: Time stretches mysteriously in the great state of Pennsylvania. The capital is Harrisburg. d the population of the state is about 13 million, which is not that many people for such a large geographic area. The two largest metropolitan areas are Pittsburgh in the western part of the state, and Philadelphia in the east. And in between, which is where your time stretching experience happened, there are lots of rolling hills and forests and just vast swaths of farmland. In fact, there are two counties in the state of Pennsylvania that are still so rural they have no traffic lights.
Melissa: Yes, but having said that, about 79 percent of the population actually lives in urban areas and then the remaining twenty one percent is rural.
David: Like the rest of the United States, from our last episode.
Melissa: Exactly. It’s on parallel with the country. Let’s talk about history.
Melissa: Every four years when presidential elections roll around, Pennsylvania gets to be a big deal because it’s a swing state, which means it can go either Democrat or Republican depending on how people are feeling.
David: It’s shifty.
Melissa: It’s shifty, and it has 20 electoral votes, which is a pretty good size. But Pennsylvania has kind of been a big deal in politics from the very beginning. It was one of the original 13 colonies. And it was founded by William Penn in 1681. He was given a big chunk of land by King Charles II of England because the king owed his father money.
David: Can you imagine? The King owed my dad money, so he gave me a state.
Melissa: Yeah. He named the colony Pennsylvania after his family name ‘Penn’ and ‘sylvania,’ the Latin word for forest. But according to legend, he was really worried that people were going to think he named it after himself and think that he was an egomaniac. He was actually naming it in tribute to his father. He was a British Quaker and he had been persecuted back at home. So he set up Pennsylvania to be a kind of persecution-free zone, a haven for religious freedom. And that meant that soon there were also German immigrants, including Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish. These settlers developed their own dialect, and that’s how the Pennsylvania Dutch came to be. And that’s why today you can go to Lancaster and see the whole horse-and-buggy situation and eat the best shoofly pie you will ever have in your life.
David: What’s shoofly pie made of?
Melissa: Shoofly pie is a traditional pie crust. And then there’s a layer of molasses flavored goo, for lack of a better word, and then on the top, there’s a crumbly, like, coffee cake crumbles on the top.
Melissa: So you get crunchy, chewy, gooey, sweet. It’s delicious. Moving on! During the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, Pennsylvania was right up in there again. Yes. Philadelphia was the capital. Did you know that?
David: I did that — for the United States for a while. Yeah.
Melissa: And some little documents you may have heard of: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both drafted and ratified there. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Pennsylvania remained loyal to the Union. And in fact, the state had passed a law abolishing slavery in 1780 — many decades before. And I’m proud to say that a lot of people in Pennsylvania were part of the Underground Railroad, including a house in my little town.
David: Oh, really?
Melissa: Yes, that made me feel very happy when I was growing up there. Now, if we fast forward a little bit, we get to what I call Pennsylvania Sexy Time: The Gilded Age, early 19th century. [laughter] You looked really worried.
David: Pennsylvania sexy time had a whole different visual for me than I think it does for you.
Melissa: Yeah, we’re talking coal mining. We’re talking steel industry.
David: I see.
Melissa: We’re talking big rich barons like Andrew Carnegie and Charles Schwab and John D. Rockefeller. On the sweeter side of life, Milton Hershey built his chocolate factory. Thanks, Milton! And the Heinz Company started making ketchup. This is all in the early 19th century.
David: The boom.
Melissa: Which brings me to food.
David: Oh, all right.
Melissa: Let’s talk about the awesome foods that were invented in Pennsylvania. So on the Italian side of the equation, you’ve got your cheesesteaks, your hoagies and your stromboli. We already mentioned the shoofly pie from our Pennsylvania Dutch friends. We also get whoopie pies —
David: Whoopie pies?
Melissa: Whoopie pies! These are big, soft chocolate cookies that are made into a sandwich with cream filling in the middle. So think about an Oreo is about an inch and a half across; whoopie pies are, like, three inches across. And they’re soft. They’re so good. Red beet eggs, one of my favorites. I know they’re not one of your favorites, David.
David: Because they’re red beet eggs.
Melissa: Funnel cakes. You go to a carnival and you eat a funnel cake. You can thank Pennsylvania for that! Birch beer, which is like root beer, only a little bit sweeter. And scrapple, which sounds like a fight.
David: Yes, it does.
Melissa: but it’s actually a breakfast food.
David: And contentious among many as to whether or not this is worth eating.
Melissa: I’m in the camp that says it is worth eating. It is a kind of mush made of pork scraps mixed with spices and cornmeal. And then it’s packed into a loaf pan so it becomes a loaf and then you slice it and fry it. And that last step is key because it just gets crispy and then it just kind of tastes greasy and salty and crispy. And it’s served usually for breakfast with eggs and hash browns.
Melissa: I learned two things about Pennsylvania food that I think you’re going to like, Dave. All right. For our audience, Dave’s favorite food is ice cream. Both the banana split and the ice cream float were invented in Pennsylvania.
Melissa: The banana split was created by a college student who was working as an apprentice at a pharmacy in Latrobe, which is in the western part of the state. He wanted to make something unusual, and he took all of the ingredients they had and put them into a sun and made the banana split. The ice cream float was invented in Philadelphia by Robert Greene. He ran out of the regular cream that was used in the sodas, and he replaced it with ice cream. His daily earnings went from $6 to $600.
David: Nicely done, buddy.
Melissa: Finally, Pennsylvania is snack food heaven. Aside from Heinz and Hershey, it’s also home to two potato chip makers, as well as the manufacturers of Marshmallow Peeps, Twizzlers, also known as the best movie candy on the planet.
David: Rec Vines people will fight you on that one.
Melissa: Twizzlers 100 percent. Hastag Twizzlers Forever — and Tastykakes, the World’s Most Delicious Crappy Cupcakes.
Melissa: These are all the tastes of my childhood and I will love them until the day I die.
David: I feel like some nostalgia fell onto your food report.
Melissa: It’s my state. I get to do what I want. [laughter] OK, the list of famous Pennsylvanians is very impressive. I mean, Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, and Punxsutawney Phil, a.k.a. the Groundhog.
David: One of those things is not like the others.
Melissa: I’m going to put a link in show notes to the list of the top 100 Pennsylvanians. But let me just drop some names on you.
Melissa: Mr. Rogers.
Melissa: I mean, we could just stop there.
David: We can.
Melissa: Taylor Swift, Tina Fey, Kevin Bacon, Joan Jett, The Roots and Patti LaBelle writers. John Updike, John O’Hara, Nellie Bly, Alison Bechdel who wrote Fun Home, and Gertrude Stein. Artists Keith Haring, Mary Cassatt, and Andy Warhol.
David: Yeah, Andy Warhol and Fred Rogers grew up together in Pittsburgh, which is just the craziest idea to me, that maybe there was a party where one was walking out the back when the other was coming in the front.
Melissa: Or, you know, they were hanging out together. I mean, they were both kind of weirdos in their own way, so I like the idea of them gravitating toward each other.
David: Yeah. Or somebody who just knew them both.
Melissa: Yeah. You know, Andy Warhol went to my dad’s restaurant one time, and my dad is very chill about that. And every time I think about it, my brain explodes a little bit. [laughter] Here’s my last one. I’m going to stop with this one because I love him so very much: Gene Kelly.
Melissa: And finally, a shout out to Crayola crayons. They are all made in Pennsylvania.
David: Yeah, I read that when I was doing the research. Every Crayola crayon you’ve ever picked up was made in Pennsylvania.
Melissa: You’re welcome, America. [laughter]
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie? Pennsylvania has a lot to offer in the unusual tourist attraction arena.
Melissa: That just made me puff up my chest a little bit.
David: I wanted to specifically call out a museum in Pittsburgh. It’s dedicated to things that have fallen apart. [laughter] It’s sponsored by a company that does structural analysis. And the best part about it called The Museum of Material Failures.
Melissa: This is amazing. Is this a metaphor? The mind reels.
David: Doesn’t it? I love everything about that. That needs to be the name of a book, The Museum of Material Failures.
Melissa: I feel like we’re an idea generator for novelists, and they should just be taking the crazy stuff we say and running with it.
David: Speaking of which, I should also mention Centralia. Centralia had an underground coal fire that started in an abandoned mine in 1962. That fire is still burning almost 60 years later. The entire area, the entire town of Centralia has been condemned and largely abandoned through an agreement with the state. Seven people are still living there and can live there until their death. One of those people is Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Road.
Melissa: Are you serious?
David: No, I totally made that up. But I really like the idea.
Melissa: I am so gullible. I mean, sure, maybe.
David: But the Centralia part is true.
Melissa: Seven people.
David: Yeah, but none of those things made Two Truths and a Lie. Today Two Truths and a Lie has a theme. The theme is: questionable monuments to the dead. Here we go. I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doees not know which one is the lie. Here are the statements. One: There’s a town in Pennsylvania that’s named after one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. The town is called Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Prior to his death, Jim Thorpe was never in the town that came to bear his name. Two: There is a tombstone in Pittsburgh for a man whose favorite movie was the 1972 version of The Dawn of the Dead. His tombstone looks like the poster. And three: Charles Dickens had a raven. You will find its stuffed remains in Philadelphia’s Free Library.
Melissa: That made me sit up and take notice. So I know about the town of Jim Thorpe. True or not true that Jim Thorpe was never there. I’m going to guess that is true.
David: That is true. So Jim Thorpe — now warning the story is going to be sad.
Melissa: Yeah, the Jim Thorpe story is really sad.
David: Jim Thorpe was one of the 20th century’s greatest athletes. In 1999, the Associated Press placed him third on the list of top athletes of the century right after Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan. I should also mention that he was a Native American. He was part of a Sauk and Fox Nation. He won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics. Before one of those events, somebody stole his shoes.
Melissa: Wasn’t he a track and field star?
David: Yeah. Yeah, he did decathlon and pentathlon. Somebody stole the shoes and then he competed in a pair of mismatched shoes that he dug out of the trash. Jim went on from his shoe troubles to win the gold and set a record that stood for almost 20 years.
Melissa: Right on.
David: He went on to play six seasons of Major League Baseball. He also played for thirteen years in the NFL as a running back.
Melissa: I don’t think I knew that football part.
David: Yeah, he played football well enough that he was in the first round of inductees into the Pro Hall of Fame in 1963, and then he played as a professional basketball player.
Melissa: Oh, come on.
David: Seriously. He was famous and he was loved in his time. There’s a movie of his life starring Burt Lancaster. After he got too old to be an athlete, though, things got a little dark for Jim. He worked as a doorman and a ditch digger and he suffered from alcoholism and he was broke when he died in California in 1953. His widow, who was penniless, made a deal with a couple of Pennsylvania towns. They at the time, they were called Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. They were trying to drum up tourism. They paid her and she shipped Thorpe’s body to them. They renamed the area after him, but prior to his death, he’d never been there. He’s still buried there on a patch of dirt from Oklahoma where he was born, and a patch of dirt from Stockholm where he won his gold medals.
Melissa: Oh, that is so sweet. And very sad. Also, I understand why Mauch Chunk was worried about tourism.
David: So that leaves us with the Tombstone and Charles Dickens’ Raven.
Melissa: I’m going to say I’m going to say the Tombstone thing is also true.
David: The Tombstone thing is false.
Melissa: You tricked me again. Yeah. There’s a man, Lester C. Madden. Lester served in the Korean War, but his greatest love, as far as we know, was a movie. But that movie was the 1975 blockbuster Jaws.
Melissa: Also one of my top five favorite movies of all time.
David: When he was buried in 1983, they made him a tombstone that looks like the famous shark from the poster.
Melissa: [laughter] That is really strange.
David: And he’s now buried in the Allegheny Cemetery, which is about three miles from downtown Pittsburgh.
Melissa: I wonder if they buried him with his feet down and his head up so he can be like reaching for the surface of the water like jaws is coming to get him.
David: It looks exactly like the poster, the shark from the poster coming up. I can’t help but think that in 100 years people are going to wonder what happened.
Melissa: What is going on there?
David: This poor man was eaten by a shark and they made a tomb in Pennsylvania. And that leaves us —
Melissa: Charles Dickens’ raven.
David: Charles Dicksn’s raven. You are going to love this story.
David: Dickens had three different Ravens. All of them were named Grip.
Melissa: What? How do I not know this?
David: The first one was written into a short story ‘Barnaby Rudge.’ The original Grip died in 1841. Dickens loves him. So it gets him stuffed and mounted and he puts him over his death. So watch him write. In 1842, the next year, Charles Dickens comes to Philadelphia on a reading tour. There he meets an up-and-coming writer who had reviewed ‘Barnaby Rudge:’ Edgar Allan Poe.
Melissa: I was going to ask if it was Edgar Allan Poe.
David: Yeah. And apparently the two spent some time talking about the bird. According to the BBC, most scholars are in agreement that the poet’s fascination with Grip was the inspiration for The Raven.
Melissa: I love everything about that story.
David: I thought you might. After Dickens’ death in 1870, there was a sale of his effects. Grip was bought by an American Poe collector who understood the connection. That guy left the Raven to the Free library in Philadelphia, where to this day Grip sits in the hall of the rare books department. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.
Melissa: That was so good.
David: Let’s talk about books.
Melissa: My first book is called Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent. This is a novel set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania in 2007, so fairly contemporary. It’s generally described as a thriller and it is very suspenseful and atmospheric. But for me, it had much deeper threads than I think most thrillers have into kind of emotional resonance.
David: So a literary thriller.
Melissa: Yeah, but not — I hesitated to call it a literary thriller because that can sometimes mean that it’s very heady and this really isn’t. I found it super compelling. I read this in one day. It’s like a 300-page book and I could not put it down. So here’s our setup. Our heroine and she’s kind of an anti-heroine — she’s a little prickly and hard to like. But you really care about her, which I think is always fascinating when an author can do that. Her name is Kathleen. She’s twenty six years old. And four years ago, her husband died in a freak car accident. So now she’s basically hiding out in the mountains to heal. And her life is very routine. She works in a tiny convenience store that’s located in the corner of a national park and there’s a rundown hostel across the parking lot. And her days are spent cooking hamburgers and handing out ice cream to hunters and hikers that are visiting the park. That’s it. That is what she does. She has a very small circle of acquaintances and really rough relationships with some of the members of her family. And she’s really like keeping herself to herself and she likes it that way.
David: So, a down-and-out loner.
Melissa: Yes. Then one day she meets a stranger from Uzbekistan. This should set off alarm bells and questions in your mind immediately. What is someone from Uzbekistan doing in this very isolated rural corner of Pennsylvania? It’s the winter. Why is he there? He has the vibe of somebody who’s on the run and hiding out, but it’s unclear why. But he has no money. He has no other resources. He has no tools to help him get through this coldest part of winter. And the two of them develop a really complicated and tenuous relationship. And then the story takes off from there.
David: That sounds dangerous and promising.
Melissa: Exactly. So emotionally, this is really a rich ground. Kathleen is very disconnected from herself and the rest of the world. And what emotions she does feel, she keeps really tightly reined in and she’s pretty jumpy. I just want to read you a little passage:
_Most of the time, for the past four years, I had felt as though I were enveloped in a haze of fear, a low sense of terror that hummed and cracked in the background, making me flinch when I lit the gas stove, when I drove in the rain, when I mounted the ladder to fix the gutter. And yet every so often I flung myself into danger as if it were the only thing I wanted. As if I could only be alive in moments as swift and violent as the one that had frightened me the most.
Melissa: Kathleen’s a little dark.
David: Yeah, that’s some Hitchcock stuff there.
Melissa: As the story unfolds, we slowly learn why she is having this reaction. But you don’t get the entire picture until the very end of the book. So those pages are just turning themselves. And Daniil, the mysterious stranger, presents as a really decent person. But it’s also obvious that he is keeping secrets and eventually he does admit that people are looking for him. Who they are and why they’re looking kind of remains a secret throughout most of the book.
Melissa: For some reason, Kathleen trusts him and wants to help him.
And because she does, we do, too. It’s a really nice trick in the writing that we know he’s not being honest, but for some reason we trust him and we’re rooting for him. So I love the way this captured what I’ve often thought about the wilder parts of Pennsylvania and really, any woodsy place. It’s really, really beautiful. But somehow it feels sinister, too, and foreboding. The story begins in winter. That means it’s the off-season for the state park. So it’s really isolated and lonely and barren. The frozen mountains and the snowstorms make for really dramatic scenery. But as one of the characters says, ‘Just because you’re used to this place don’t mean it ain’t dangerous.’
Melissa: I really responded to that because it sounds like the people I grew up with. There’s also a really effective sense of claustrophobia, of being closed in by the mountains and by the entropy of this place. It feels stuck in time. And the people who live there also feel kind of stuck in time. It’s really difficult for the characters to break out and to leave what’s familiar. And it’s nearly impossible to change if you stay. I could really relate to that emotion because I think lots of people feel that way about their hometown.
David: Yeah, right. And the entropy of both your home and small towns can be overwhelming depending on your situation.
Melissa: And then when someone new comes in, that kind of upsets the status quo. So I could also understand why Kathleen was very interested in Daniil, because it’s something new and it’s someone from outside who is not subject to the same magnetic pull of the place.
David: The sexy new kid.
Melissa: Yeah. This would be an excellent book for a book club. There is a lot to talk about. It explores working-class America and what it’s like to live in rural America. And it’s also a really nuanced examination of the light and dark that’s inside everyone. People are rarely just one thing, and tragedy changes you. And how that plays out gives you a lot to talk about in this book.
Melissa: The author is Sarah St. Vincent. She grew up in rural Pennsylvania and then went to Swarthmore College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan Law School. She’s now a human rights attorney and has been a strong advocate for survivors of domestic abuse. She said she wrote this book because she liked the idea of two characters who are in a vulnerable and dangerous place and need to turn to each other. This was a really tough read, but I was totally into it. And as I said, I devoured it in one day.
David: That sounds great.
Melissa: This is Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent.
David: My first book is Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. This book was recommended by our friend Ellen. Hi, Ellen. Ellen is an author. She writes picture books. She has excellent taste in books, as well as being an awesome writer herself.
Melissa: We will put a link in show notes to her books.
David: Yeah. This is a non-fiction book for children about Pennsylvania’s coal mining towns in the late 1800. Susan Campbell Bartoletti has made quite a career for herself, writing about horrible things that have happened to children for children.
Melissa: [laughter] That is quite a claim to fame.
David: It is! Her nonfiction for children — I can’t stress that enough — includes books on the Irish potato famine, Typhoid Mary, The Klan, and most famously, her book on the Hitler Youth for which she got a Newbery Honor.
Melissa: I have to admit, I would have loved these books when I was a kid, and I will definitely go read them all now.
David: Yeah, she otherwise seems to be a really nice person. Bartoletti was an eighth grade teacher for 18 years. During that time, she used to use her class as a workshop. She’d asked the kids to write a poem or story and then she’d write one, too, and then she’d read it to them and see what they thought, which seems just a fiercely brave to me. I didn’t want to read to eighth graders when I was one.
Melissa: Yeah, eighth graders are tough. Right on the cusp. I’m sure I was insufferable when I was in eighth grade.
David: Oh, it’s the toughest age, I think for both the child and everybody around the time. This book Growing Up in Coal Country is her first book. It was published in 1996. It’s about the kids who grew up in the mines and their families. She’s from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She married into a family that had coal miners in it. She heard the stories about what it was like for them and she wanted to capture that. So she started doing just an enormous amount of research, going out and talking to miners, getting their stories and trying to figure out how to tell that to children. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that working in the mines was hard, backbreaking, and frequently lethal work. Most of the people doing it were immigrants and their children, some of whom had been tricked overseas with the lure of easy pay.
Melissa: We saw that a little bit when we talked about Chicago, too, with the meatpacking district in Chicago.
David: Same story, different place. Her husband’s grandfather, for instance, came over from Italy when he was maybe seven. When he was eleven, he quit school and started working as a breaker. Those are the people who sort through coal once it’s been mined. So you’re looking for things that aren’t coal and trying to break it down into smaller chunks. You have to be fast and small for that kind of work. So boys are usually preferred. When he was older, he was promoted to a miner because he was a kid who was digging coal out of areas that were too small for anyone else to fit into.
David: Hgot married when he was thirteen. And they had their first baby at fourteen. And when the day was over he’d come home and spend his evenings building a house for them.
Melissa: I’m just imagining a 14 year old with a wife, a baby, and building a house after working in a mine all day. A 14 year old.
David: Bartoletti tell stories in this book that’ll chill your blood if you have any empathy at all. It’s the details,too, that that just drive the whole thing home. There’s a bit in here about how there was a law that you had to be 14 to work in the mine, but it was criminally easy to pay 25 cents for a new birth record and present your kid as small for 14.
Melissa: I’m frowning.
David: Or the boys that were encouraged to chew tobacco when they were working because it was supposed to prevent the dust from going down your throat. There are a ton of pictures in this book, old black and white shots, and some of them will just break your heart. There’s a there’s one toward the back with a bunch of boys, maybe 45 of them, none of whom I don’t think are older than 12, dressed in their mining outfits and covered with coal soot, and some of them with just the life drained out of their eyes. It’s grim. And none of these kids have at a childhood, at least not the way we think about it. And I suspect that that’s why this book would work so well as a children’s book. Bartoletti doesn’t whitewash the experience. This is a well told, emotionally resonant investigation of child labor.
David: It is not 100 percent dark. It’s pretty close to 100 percent dark. There are stories of children sabotaging equipment so that they can go to the circus, for instance.
Melissa: Oh, they just give me a mental picture of the Little Rascals. Yeah.
David: And she ends the book with a story of unionization. It was surprising to me to read some of the details about how strongly those rural areas were in favor of unionization only 100 years ago. And she tells you what happened to some of the people in the book, not all of which is tragic. It doesn’t feel exploitative. Or sensationalistic. She’s just telling you what happened so that you can empathize and so maybe it’ll never happen again. Bartoletti has been asked a few times if she writes to show young people how good they have it.
Melissa: That’s a very strange question.
David: Isn’t it?
Melissa: That would not be my take away.
David: And she said, ‘I don’t. I hope that my work gives my readers courage. 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.
Melissa: That’s really nice.
David: Isn’t it? The intended audience for this book is grades five to eight. But again, a good book is a good book. If you’re curious about the US immigrant experience in the 1800s or the background of Pennsylvania miners and their coal mining unions, this book is a great read.
Melissa: I want to go read it right now.
David: It’s about 140 pages long, so I’ll probably take you maybe a couple hours to read the experience. It’s almost like a museum because of the it’s lavishly photographed and there’s everything supports each other. I should mention that there’s also an audio book that was quite good. Once again, the book is Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
Melissa: My next recommendation is Long Bright River by Liz Moore. This is set in modern Philadelphia and it presents itself as a crime novel. And it is. But really it’s an examination of the relationship between two sisters. The neighborhood where the action takes place is Kensington, which has historically been a working-class neighborhood in northeastern Philadelphia. There are train tracks and row houses, and it used to be filled with families. But now, in real life and in the book, it’s been kind of abandoned to street people and heroine. I will include a link and show notes to a really heartbreaking story that was on the BBC about just the open heroin use in this neighborhood.
David: That’s the neighborhood that they cleaned out recently, right?
Melissa: Yeah, well, tried to.
David: Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa: So our sisters are Mickey and Kacey Fitzpatrick. Mickey is a 30-something patrol officer in the Philadelphia Police Department, and her younger sister Kacey is a sex worker who supports her heroin habit by turning tricks. Mickey and Kacey used to be very close, but it’s been ages since they’ve talked to each other. And as her older sister, Mickey really worries about Kacey all the time. When she’s out patrolling, she’s also halfway looking for Kacey everywhere she goes.
Melissa: So the action begins with a string of murders on Mickey’s beat. These are women who are probably sex workers and drug addicts being killed. And she is, of course, insanely worried that she’s going to find Kacey next, and then Kacey disappears. So Mickey goes looking for her in all of the usual haunts and talks to her friends. And she is nowhere to be found. And everywhere one she asks for help — her own sketchy family members, other prostitutes, drug dealers — they’re all reluctant to tell her anything. She feels like people know things that they are not divulging. And she becomes 100 percent determined to find out not only what happened to her sister, but to also figure out who is killing these other women.
Melissa: Mickey has a very kind heart. It is rough watching her grapple with all of these emotions, both about her sister and the sad state of the Kensington neighborhood. This is her home. This is where she grew up. And she is a cop with a really good heart. She wants to help people. She doesn’t just want to arrest them and she just doesn’t want to just clean up the mess after it’s too late. So that’s the crime side of the story. And it’s very suspenseful. And Mickey goes through all of the steps that you would expect. If you like police procedurals, this book hits all of those marks. So as just as a straight up mystery, it works very well.
Melissa: But what elevates this above a regular standard police procedural is the backstory of the relationships between the sisters and the paths that they took to get where they are now. Mickey is the narrator of the story, so we’re getting her first-person perspective. She tells it through flashbacks to her childhood and teenage years. We get to know her and KAcey really, really well. And this just made my empathy explode all over the place.
David: Yeah, I’m impressed the author dug up the history. She could have told that story without taking you through the emotional door of how these people came to be who they are.
Melissa: Yes. And it’s really effective because I think you can have a knee jerk reaction to, well, she’s a prostitute and a heroin addict. What did she think was going to happen? And you see very clearly how Kacey — it’s really fascinating because two sisters, same household, not that far apart in age one, ends up on a path to become a police officer, the other one goes down the path to be a drug addict and prostitute. And you feel for both of them. It is just heart wrenching.
Melissa: There are really vivid descriptions of how Mickey had to become Kacey’s caregiver because their mom died and even though they were living with their grandmother, who they called Gee, Mickey had to really be the mother and the big sister, and she was only a teenager herself. The author, Liz Moore, does a really nice job creating the atmosphere of a large Irish Catholic family in urban Philadelphia. So you see how this big family kind of breaks into cliques.
Melissa: People take sides against each other, and there are long-held grudges and secrets. And there’s a scene where they all get together for Thanksgiving. The undercurrent of tension is palpable. Anyone who’s been at a big family gathering where, you know, there’s a long, shared family history, you will relate to that scene. On one hand, it’s really nice. They’re all together and they’re eating and they’re celebrating. And like, that’s definitely happening. There is some warmth. But then there’s all this other stuff going on under the surface. The story of how Kacey fell into drug use is really powerful and empathy building. And at one point, Mickey actually says, ‘The first time I found my sister dead, she was 16.’
David: Wow. Is that the start of the book?
Melissa: It’s the start of one of the chapters. Yeah, really impactful. And I listened to this on audio. Because the first-person narration and because of sentences like that, it worked great as an audiobook, because when you’re reading on the page, I don’t know if this happens to you, but sometimes your eyes kind of sneak ahead.
Melissa: And you spoil things for yourself.
David: Yeah. Sometimes I have to strongly concentrate not to read the end of the page first.
Melissa: Yeah. So this worked great on audio because that sentence like just came out of nowhere. It was wonderfu. Forty-eight hours earlier, on a Friday afternoon, she left school with her friends, telling me she’d be back by evening. She wasn’t. By Saturday, I was frightened, telephoning Kacey’s friends, asking them if they knew where she was. But nobody did or no one would tell me at least. I was 17 then, very shy, already cast in the role I’ve played my entire life. The responsible one.’
Melissa: Wow, did that resonate with me. Not because I’ve been in that particular situation, but I’m the oldest sibling. I have always been the responsible one. That is a mantle that you wear that is so heavy, even when it’s self-imposed. Particularly when it’s self-imposed.
David: Both of those relationships kind of define each other, right?
Melissa: They push against each other. Yeah, this is kind of a slightly darker version of the sibling relationship we saw in —
David: Every sibling relationship ever. [laughter]
Melissa: Yes. But I’m thinking specifically of the book I recommended in the New Zealand episode The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep. Those were two brothers with this kind of fraught relationship. Now we have the sisterly version.
Melissa: So to me, this is really a family story disguised as a crime novel, which I guess all the best crime novels really are. They give you some kind of — something else underneath the crime story. This is a deep dive into issues of trust and loyalty and how being determined to change your life can leave others behind and how you have to wrestle with your feelings around that. And also the damage that regret and secrets can do both to individuals and to families and how those things kind of get passed down like some kind of weird inheritance.
Melissa: As I said, I listened to this on audio. It’s narrated by Allison Ryan, and she does just a brilliant job of bringing Mickey to life. Heer anguish when she is upset is palpable, but so is the love that she feels for her son and for her sister. So there’s, even when she’s angry and frustrated, you understand that it’s coming from a place of love and caring and kindness. It is really moving. And even though it’s a tough story, there is hope threaded throughout the whole thing. Mickey continues to strive, and that’s really powerful. I’m not the only one recommending this book. It was also one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2012. I like to pretend we read it in book club together. That is Long Bright River by Lix Moore.
David: My next book is An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. You might know Annie Dillard from her 1974 book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She won the Pulitzer Prize for that. She went on to teach for 21 years at the English department at Wesleyan, so she knows some things about writing. An American Childhood is a memoir of her time growing up in Pittsburgh in the ’50s. This book is her describing her life between five and about 13.
David: For me it did two just amazing things. First, she nails what it’s like, at least for me, to be a child during those ages. She describes those moments of what she was like when she was five. There is just wonder and fear and beauty as she wakes up to the world around her. And she’s just as good at describing what it’s like to become friends with her peers as she got older or her starting her life as a reader, which she writes about with such romance that you wish you could do it all over again. There’s a description of her examining the hands of her mother and thinking about what old skin looks like. It made me look at my own old skin.
David: And the second thing she did and I wasn’t expecting this, is that her writing is so good that it took me back to my own childhood.
Melissa: Wow. Cool.
David: Yeah. She reached into my brain and lit up images I hadn’t seen in ages, like back to the time when I had a solid relationship with the floor, you know, like crawling and walking and sitting and touching and looking at the floorboards. Or when I was young enough to just start running, just run —indoors, out, doesn’t matter. Or the like the drama of encountering a new school year when that was everything. Everything.
Melissa: I still get those yearning pangs in September. Because that was such an exciting time. I loved going back to school. And so even now it’s been a really long time since I went back to school in September, I still kind of get that longing.
David: Yeah. Dillard’s powers of observation and either recall or imagination or both are shocking, and she kind of puts what she sees in an almost mythical frame which feels completely appropriate. I’m going to read you about a page and a half from the book. It’s a little longer than something I would normally read here, but I think it’s a powerful piece of writing, and it’ll definitely toughen up whether or not this book is for you.
David: It starts when she’s about six. And there’s recently been a snowstorm that’s covered the street with ice. And her family, her parents, her sister, and her are all having dinner. So this is what she writes:
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 titled and spun. She wore a short skirt as if Edgerton Avenue’s asphalt had been the ice of an Olympic arena. She wore mittens and red knitted cap below which her black hair lifted when she turned. under her skates the street’s packed snow shone; it illumined her from below, the cold light striking her under her chin.
I stood at the tall window, barely reaching the sill; the glass fogged before my face, so I had to keep moving or hold my breath. What was she doing out there? Was everything beautiful so bold? I expected a car to run over her at any moment: the open street was a fatal place, where I was forbidden to set foot.
Once, the skater left the light. She winged into the blackness beyond the streetlight and sped down the street; only her white skates showed, and the white snow. She emerged again under another streetlight, in the continuing silence, just at our corner stop sign where the trucks’ brakes hissed. Inside that second cone of light she circled backward and leaning. Then she reversed herself in an abrupt half-turn — as if she had skated backward into herself, absorbed her own motion’s impetus, and rebounded from it; she shot forward into the dark street and appeared again becalmed in the first streetlight’s cone. I exhaled; I looked up. Distant over the street, the night sky was moonless and foreign, a frail, bottomless black, and the cold stars speckled it without moving.
Melissa: That is lovely.
David: Isn’t that a nice piece of writing.
Melissa: Yeah, it reminds me a little bit of Ray Bradbury’s writing in Something Wicked This Way Comes. That kind of nostalgic, very descriptive transports you right into that moment.
David: And there’s something about the terseness of it, too. But at the same time, she feels like she’s seeing everything.
Melissa: Very descriptive word choices. The words are very evocative.
David: I will say that I’m not sure you have to read this book in one shot. There’s no plot to speak of. There is a really great chapter about her mother. But otherwise you’re pretty much entirely alone with young Annie for most for the length of the book. This is a book of essays more than anything else with the sort of a unifying thread, and you could break that up with other reading.
David: There’s definitely a strong sense of Pittsburgh in this book. She tells you in vivid detail about downtown and what she read in history books and her fantasies of the French and Indian War, which are pretty great, and the details that were pertinent to her when she was a kid.
Melissa: What an extraordinary mind she has. I mean, I don’t remember anything from when I was a little kid.
David: Exactly that, right? And there were sort of two phases of reading this book for me. One is coping with that, just her ability to remember things, but then her ability to remember things also made me remember things just because of the way she’s describing them. And I’m like, oh yeah, I remember that. I remember being a kid Gladwin, Michigan, and discovering frost on the window, and it was magic.
Melissa: Books are magic. She’s a magician. We’ve just decided that.
David: Annie Dillard is a magician, and you should read this book if this calls to you at all. So if you’re interested in some just lovely writing or revisiting bits of your own childhood or Pittsburgh in the ’50s, I can’t recommend Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood enough.
Melissa: My final Pennsylvania book is 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas.
David: Oh, you love this book.
Melissa: I do. By Marie-Helene Bertino. This is a coming-of age adventure story set in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Fishtown is sort of the hipster creative nightlife area of town, the fun part. The shining star of this story is Madeleine. She is two days away from being 10, and she is a ball of ambition. She wants to be a singer. And this book opens with her practicing in front of the mirror. And it is so cute. But she is not one of those sugary-sweet little girls from a talent show with the perfect curls and a big grin pasted onto her face.
Melissa: That is not Madeleine. Madeleine is a trash talking, cigarette smoking torch singer like her mom.
David: I love everything about this book so far.
Melissa: She’s amazing. So Madeleine’s mom was a dancer and a singer. And according to all reports, she was a goddess whose voice just charmed everyone in the room. She died recently. When she died, Madeleine’s father got so lost in his own grief that he just emotionally abandoned her, and she’s left to fend for herself in their crappy, roach-infested apartment. To scare the roaches away before she enters the room, she announces herself and bursts into the room like she’s walking onto a stage.
Melissa: Which makes you laugh and cry at the same time.
David: It does. That’s so great, though.
Melissa: Yeah, she is a tough little cookie. I loved her so much, like, from page one, but not everybody in the book does. This is one of my favorite passages from the book:
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.
David: [laughing] Aw.
Melissa: I know! Poor Madeleine and she’s not so much a jerk as she is just this broken hearted little girl who’s lonely and channels all of her energy toward the future because her present is super-crappy. So the one bright spot in her life is a gift that her mom left her before she died. It’s a box of index cards where she wrote bits of life advice, one piece of advice per card. So one card says, Never show up to someone’s home empty handed. And another says How to make a fist. So it just runs the gamut of practical and emotional advice. And Madeleine clings to these little bits of knowledge like lifelines as she practices her singing and her dance moves and thinks about the future when she’s going to be a big star.
Melissa: So the beginning of the book: She has been expecting to sing a solo at her school’s morning mass. She goes to a Catholic school. But the principal gives it to someone else.
Melissa: And then when she reacts, he expels her.
David: This is an outrage. This will not stand.
Melissa: So she does the only thing that makes sense. She decides to go on a quest to find the legendary jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas. Why sing in church when you can sing in a nightclub? She’s going to go there and she’s going to make her big debut. So the rest of the book is about the people and the misadventures that she encounters on her way to Fishtown and to the club. And it all takes place in one snowy, 24-hour period. The thing you have to remember is she’s just trying to get across town, but she’s a nine-year-old girl with no resources, no car, no one helping her, trying to get from her crappy, roachy apartment to the Cat’s Pajamas.
Melissa: It is really, really hard to get over how awesome Madeleine is. She’s just prickly and grumpy and adorable and funny and lovable. And she’s surrounded by a cast of characters who are also having life=changing experiences of their own in this one 24-hour period. So we meet her fifth grade teacher who’s going through a romantic thing, which is very compelling. We get to know the really kind woman who runs the neighborhood cafe down on the corner where Madeleine goes and kind of finds some sense of family there because people there look out for her. Which is sweet, but also very sad. And there’s also the owner of the Cat’s Pajamas. We meet him and he is wrestling with a big problem that I won’t give away. But there’s stuff going on at the Cat’s Pajamas, too.
Melissa: The connections between all of these people are slowly revealed. And at first it kind of seems like the coincidences that happen in 19th-century novels where you’re like, Oh, that’s convenient; they know each other. But then you realize that’s how life works in an old neighborhood where families have been there for generations. There’s a history and community among the people: so and so knows so and so’s cousin who’s married to so and so’s neighbor.
Melissa: That’s how this neighborhood works, and that’s how the connections kind of come to be. It’s really sweet. Philadelphia is also a primary character in this story. The author does a really nice job of painting kind of weird pictures of Madeleine’s school and the vibe at the neighborhood cafe. There’s a really, really nice kind of important scene of people walking through the snow that’s slowly drifting down over Rittenhouse Square. It’s just beautiful. And there’s a big night at the Cat’s Pajamas, which during this time of isolation and pandemic, staying home. — just made me yearn to go to the bar that’s maybe a little too crowded. So it’s maybe just a little too warm and a little too loud and everybody’s had too much to drink. But it’s really awesome and fun anyway. The band is playing and it feels kind of reckless but perfect at the same time. Yeah, that’s happening at the Cat’s Pajamas.
David: Yeah. Let’s go there.
Melissa: I mean you can read the book and go there. This book has some common DNA with Eleanor Lipmann novels. They’re romantic comedies with sparkly, breezy writing that will make you laugh out loud. But then underneath that kind of effervescence on the surface, there are real emotions playing out, which I find very satisfying — kind of punches you in the solar plexus when you’re not expecting it. Every time I think about this book, I want to pick it up and read it again, which is the highest praise I can give to a novel. That is 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino.
David: Those are five books we love set in Pennsylvania — sexy, sexy Pennsylvania.
David: Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, can you talk about the blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: Let’s talk about the food first, because obviously I’m very excited about that.
David: Of course.
Melissa: We’ve got a recipe for whoopie pies.
David: Really? You can make those at home?
Melissa: You can make them at home. They are not difficult to make.
David: That’s exciting.
Melissa: And what better way to make friends?
David: Whoopie pies make friends. It’s well known.
Melissa: Would it surprise you to know there are a lot of stunning historical libraries in Pennsylvania?
David: It would not actually.
Melissa: We’ve got a roundup of those libraries with photographs and information about what you can find there and how you can visit when The Weirds are over.
Melissa: I’ve also got the scoop on when we visited Pressed Coffee & Books with photographs of the cafe and the bookshop and the John O’Hara’s statue. There’s also a fascinating photography book that I wanted to talk about on the podcast, but it’s very challenging to talk about a photography book in the audio format.
David: It is.
Melissa: So I’m going to be doing a blog post about a book called Abandoned Pennsylvania, which is a collection of really beautiful and also sad photographs of abandoned places in Pennsylvania.
David: We have that book and that book is remarkable. I really enjoyed flipping through it.
Melissa: The spaces almost become cathedral-like somehow. If your imagination tilts that way at all, it’s really easy to start making up stories about who lived there and what they were doing —
David: Or planning to open offices there.
Melissa: It’s true. It’s true. There are more than a few photographs in thStrong Sense of Place headquarters there, that would be amazing. Yeah, so that’s all coming in the next two weeks on the blog.
David: We have just launched our patron. If you like the work that we’re doing and you want to support the show, head over to a strongsenseofplace.com/support. And that will redirect you to our Patreon page. And thank you so much for your support. It means a lot to us.
Melissa: And if you can’t, that is fine. Just continue to do what you’re doing. Listen to the show. Tell your friends. Every time you tell someone about Strong Sense of Place, a librarian gets its wings.
David: And that’s why you’ve been seeing all those flying librarians recently.
Melissa: They’re like magical fairies of awesome.
David: Yeah, they are malware. We had it in our next episode.
Melissa: Speaking of magical fairies of awesome — we’re going to Ireland.
David: Fantastic. We will talk to you then.
Top image courtesy of Sean Pavone.
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