A Coal Miner's Bride Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti knows about the coal country of Pennsylvania. Her nonfiction book Growing Up in Coal Country garnered many awards, and Kids on Strike! was named a best book of the year. In A Coal Miner's Bride, she brings young readers to the 1890's coal mining towns, boarding houses, and into the dangerous mines themselves. Through the diary entries of thirteen-year-old Anetka Kaminska, Bartoletti spins the tale of arranged marriages and the dawn to dusk work of immigrant girls and women caring for their coal mining men and young families in a new land filled with different customs and plenty of people who dislike or fear the new immigrants. Readers get an indelible picture of the dangerous work in the mines made worse by rich bosses who cut wages, endanger the miners, and pit worker against worker until talks of unions and strikes lead to violence.
A Coal Miner's Bride is about the immigrant men who descend into the black tunnels each day and come out coughing and covered with coal dust. But even more, this diary is about the heroic females the men come home to each night. Bartoletti says, "I owe this book to strong women. I am not Polish, but when I first started to think about Anetka and her qualities and traits, I thought about the strong women in my family: my grandmother who ran a boardinghouse; my mother who was widowed at twenty-three and left with two small children; my husband's grandmother who was married at thirteen to a coal miner and had her first baby at fourteen; my mother-in-law who knows the old ways; and my daughter who is learning the ways of her mother and grandmothers while still forging her own path."
Babcia stroked my hair. "It is a father's duty to find his daughter a good husband."
"To devil with duty! He has traded me for steamship tickets. I don't want to go to America. I don't want to marry a man I do not love."
Despite her objections and prayers, Anetka Kaminska and her pesky younger brother Jozef cross the Polish countryside on foot, in wagons and trains, and bribe their way to the ship that carries Anetka to her father and the husband he has selected for her. These two children have left behind trouble — persecution for teaching Polish — as well as their friends and the village they love. Instead of Babcia, their grandmother, Anetka's traveling companion is the Russian soldier, Private Leon Nasevich, who has saved her life.
The crossing brings hunger, English lessons, new friends, and a surprise for Anetka. On the night of the summer solstice, when all the émigrés celebrate in the old-world style, Leon pulls Anetka into the circle of dancers. "I could scarcely catch my breath. When the dance was over, Leon didn't let go, but pulled me away from the circle and kissed me on the mouth. That kiss traveled down to my feet."
On the 4th of July 1896, Anetka celebrates her first American holiday, attends her first baseball game, and finally meets her future husband. "Stanley is tall. He is strong looking. He has an agreeable face though he doesn't smile much. His teeth are white and straight. I am glad, for I would not want to kiss a husband with crooked yellow teeth. He doesn't smell bad, and his neck is clean." Stanley's first question to Anetka is simply, "Do you like children?" He has an ulterior motive for wanting a bride — three young daughters and no one to care for them. Before the evening is over, Anetka's wedding date has been decreed: July 25th — just 21 days hence.
During her first year of marriage, Anetka, who has barely rounded her thirteenth namesake day, masters the duties of a good wife: butcher a hog and a chicken, cook, clean, tend babies, plant a garden and preserve vegetables and berries, smoke meats, and transform cabbage into sauerkraut. She also witnesses the greed of the American mine owners who inflate prices then cheat workers by imposing illegal taxes. She learns what it means to bear adult responsibilities while only a child, and she prays daily that her family remains safeguarded from Black Mariah — the wagon of death. Before Anetka reaches her fourteenth birthday, she has endured more than a lifetime's grief — and experienced more than a lifetime's satisfaction. Anetka lives her life remembering, "To know love in your life, you must know love in you heart."
Thinking About the Book
- What is the one thing that happens to Anetka that you would share with your best friends if you wanted them to read the book? Why is this your favorite part of her diary?
- How do you feel about the men in Anetka's diary? Write a sentence that describes how you feel about each of these male characters:
*Private Leon Nasevich
*Her brother, Jozef
- What does Anetka mean when she says, "To know love in your life, you must know love in you heart."
- How does Anetka learn English? Why is learning English so important to her?
- A teacher has to do a good job explaining things and keeping lessons interesting. Susan Campbell Bartoletti, the author of The Coal Miner's Bride, was a eighth grade teacher for eighteen years. Judging from Anetka's diary, do you think you would enjoy having Mrs. Bartoletti as your teacher? Explain.
- On September 18, Anetka describes the sunrise: "It stretched along the purple mountains like a yellow and orange ribbon." Do all the people in her Pennsylvania town notice the sunrise or sunset? Find support in the book for your opinion.
- The author of Anetka's diary said that if she had only two or three words to describe Anetka Kaminska, she would use "hart ducha" — a spirited heart. She said, "When I discovered those two Polish words — hart ducha — I knew they described Anetka perfectly. I admire her courage, spirit, and strength." If you had only two or three words to describe Leon Nasevich and Stanley Gawrych, what words would you choose for each man?
- Anetka is in love with books, learning, and bees. Read Patricia Polacco's picture storybook The Bee Tree. How is the main character in Polacco's book similar to Anetka?
- Plan and sketch a new cover for Anetka's diary. Consider such things as, would it be more important to picture the men on their way to the mines or the women milking their cows. Explain why you chose the particular scene you did.
- Anetka's diary introduces readers to Polish customs, celebrations, and foods. Try making the Potato Dumplings using the recipe at the back of A Coal Miner's Bride.
- Design a Venn diagram comparing Private Leon Nasevich to Stanley. How do they laugh? What do they feel about education? How do they treat Anetka? Are these two men more alike or different?
- If your husband was a worker in the Pennsylvania mines of the 1890s, would you be in favor of him taking part in a strike and joining the union of United Mine Workers? Why or why not?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.