I picked up Burning Valley by Phillip Bonosky simply because it was set in western Pennsylvania, where I now live. I’ve heard of Pittsburgh referred to as a steel town, but I didn’t know much about the industry or the area’s history. Though Burning Valley is a novel, I ended up learning a great deal.
About the Book:
Benedict Bulmanis, the fifteen-year-old son of Lithuanian immigrants, is determined to become a Catholic priest. He and his family live in Hunky Hollow, a town of predominantly Eastern European immigrant families who work in the steel mills. His father has been laid off by the mill, and his older brother spends his time gambling. His mother spends her days in the family’s small home, caring for her two youngest sons. Benedict is strict in his own religious observances and demands the same level of commitment from his family. His influence is especially strong over his younger brother, Joey, for whom Benedict seems to feel responsible.
It isn’t until a young priest from Boston arrives to assist the community’s aging priest that cracks begin to appear in Benedict’s pious outlook. On the heels of the new priest’s arrival comes a strike, and Benedict and his family are swept up in the turbulence that ensues.
Burning Valley is set in the 1920s but was written in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism. A rather bold move, as the novel deals with Communism and the author is, himself, a Communist.
Burning Valley read primarily like a coming of age novel. Bonosky’s third person narration sticks close to Benedict, so it is through Benedict’s often immature and naive eyes that the reader experiences the story and the events that impact it. When the novel opens, Benedict is sure he will become a priest, and he strives to be sure his thoughts and actions are guided by the teachings of the Catholic church. The community’s priest, Father Dahr, is more like a father to Benedict than his own father is. Dahr is from the same stock as his parishioners and so understands their ways and is accepted by them. But Dahr is old, and soon Father Brumbaugh arrives to assist him. Brumbaugh is young, Boston-bred, and from a well-off family, and he veils the revulsion he feels toward the inhabitants of Hunky Hollow only thinly and with great effort. Benedict feels loyal to both priests, and as Dahr and Brumbaugh begin to butt heads, Benedict is caught in the middle. Then there is Benedict’s father, to whom Benedict seems to feel closer as the novel progresses, though he shows none of the religious devotion that Benedict prizes.
Something is going on amongst the men of the Hollow that’s just beyond the grasp of Benedict’s understanding. Slowly, almost accidentally, he is drawn into the clash between the company that runs the mill–eventually represented to Benedict by Father Brumbaugh–and the immigrant and Negro communities, represented by Father Dahr. Benedict receives conflicting messages at every turn and is finally forced to decide for himself what is right and what is wrong. Though I was at times frustrated by how slowly Benedict seemed to catch on, I enjoyed seeing his progress and was interested by where he ended up. He did mature, and in doing so he learned to rely on his own brain over blind faith. I appreciated that he did not have to drastically alter his beliefs to reach this point–all he had to do was to apply them in a different way.
Burning Valley is based on Bonosky’s own life and that of his father, both of whom worked in steel mills. In the introduction to my edition, Alan Wald quotes Bonosky has having written about “the literary potential of his own experience”:
“In short, I [Bonosky] was missing in American literature–that is, my town, the people I knew…the men who died workers, just as they were born…who wrote about all that? Nobody. It didn’t exist…
“I felt I stood outside the permissible literary realm…I had pride in myself…but the books I read did not.” (xi)
Burning Valley is so steeped in the life Bonosky describes that it seems he succeeded in adding the voice of his experience to the world.
Bonosky’s writing is an odd mix. It struck me as utilitarian, for the most part, not overly flowery yet marked with a literary awareness that enhanced the story rather than overshadowed it. Yet every now and then a description would pop up that seemed so unlike the rest of the narration that I would make note of it: “The dawn was sitting in the doorway like a cautious cat” (p. 67), or “The red geranium bled in the sunlight” (p. 161). I savored how non-cliched these little bursts of descriptive inspiration were.
I was also fascinated to learn a bit about the steel industry. Benedict mentions frequently that trains on a nearby cliff are dumping their slag (a byproduct of steel production), describing how the burning contents of each car cascade down the hill. It sounded perilous to me, and, indeed, at one point in the novel, several shacks are consumed by errant flames. Curious to see if my mental image of all this slag dumping was accurate, I checked YouTube. This video was filmed in 1994, yet what happens in it mirrors the scenes Benedict describes. The actual dumping begins around 1:05.
Isn’t that fascinating, and kind of scary? I can’t imagine living next to a place where rivers of fire were forever pouring down the hillside.
I don’t know enough about Communism or the steel industry’s history to trace the parallels Bonosky wove into Burning Valley, though from the introduction provided in my edition, I gather they are numerous. Even without that background, I quite enjoyed Burning Valley and what it taught me about the history of my new home.
Have you ever read a novel specifically because it was set in a place with which you’re familiar? Did you learn anything new?