Susan Campbell Bartoletti: In many ways, the process of writing A Coal Miner's Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska was similar to writing my nonfiction books. Both types of books — fiction and nonfiction — are a search for story. As a writer and a reader, there's nothing I crave more than a good story!
I find most of my stories in the "gaps," the places other people haven't explored. That's where I find the untold stories in history, for the stories that have been left out — left in the gaps of history — are important. For instance, although many books tell what it was like to be a wealthy and powerful coal operator or the coal miner, few books tell what it was like to be a child who worked in the mines. Fewer books tell what it was like to be a girl. And only A Coal Miner's Bride tells what it was like to be a thirteen-year-old girl who was married to a coal miner. Anetka's story came from the gaps.
The research process is also similar. For both fiction and nonfiction, my work begins with secondary sources. I call it "reading around." The secondary sources give me a good overview or background of the historical time period. They also point me to good primary sources, such as contemporary newspapers, letters, diaries, and memoirs. And I utilize oral histories as often as I can.
To be a good researcher is to be a good detective, and I enjoy ferreting out tidbits of information. For a diary book like A Coal Miner's Bride, newspapers come in handy for small everyday details such as weather reports.
RFA & LMP: You were an eighth grade English teacher for nearly twenty years. How do you think that experience has influenced you as a writer for young people?
SCB: I never intended to be a teacher, but once I started teaching, I found that junior high kids are easy to get hooked on, and I stayed for nearly twenty years. Over the years, my students influenced me greatly, and I've learned many lessons from them. I have an immense amount of respect for them, and I think that respect for your audience is the foremost requirement for anyone who wants to write. (The same holds true for teaching.) My students had a clear sense of right and wrong, and many drew strength from strong personal value systems — and still do. They think critically about their world, and they won't accept the idea that life isn't fair. I admire their spirit and courage, and I hope my characters reflect the spirit and courage that my own students have exhibited.
RFA & LMP: The coal miners in Anetka's diary talk about the ghosts who inhabit the mines. Did you discover any interesting ghost stories while you were researching this book? Are coal miners today still superstitious people?
SCB: As immigrants came to the United States from the agrarian countries of Europe and Asia, they transplanted their customs, traditions, and beliefs. The old-world ways of many immigrants seemed strange and frightening to many of the Americans who lived and worked in the coal region. As a result, the immigrants encountered much prejudice and discrimination.
Many mine workers were superstitious, and their superstitions have become part of the folklore of the mining culture. For instance, mine workers preferred to eat in the same spot every day and with the same friends. They believed it was bad luck to pass a woman on their way to work and for a woman to enter a mine. Rats thrived in the mines, and mine workers believed that the rats would warn them of an impending explosion or roof fall. Therefore, no mine worker would harm a rat. Often, the mine workers fed the rats crusts of bread from their lunches.
Mine workers also believed that the mysterious knocking and moaning sounds in the mines were made by ghosts that only the mules could see. The ghosts were the spirits of other mine workers who had been killed in accidents.
Although mine bosses tried to convince mine workers that there were logical explanations for the unknown sounds, the mine workers preferred to believe their superstitions.
RFA & LMP: One of the most startling parts of Anetka's diary is the idea of a thirteen-year-old girl with so many responsibilities. Was this common among people already living in America or more typical of newly arrived immigrants?
SCB: In the coal region, the many daughters of immigrants married young — often as young as Anetka. In fact, the idea for a thirteen-year-old bride came from a family story. At thirteen, my husband's grandmother was married to a twenty-year-old coal miner. At fourteen, she had her first baby. This wasn't unusual in the coal region: by the time a girl was thirteen, she knew all she needed to know to take care of a house, a husband, and a family.
RFA & LMP: If you could pick two or three words to describe Anetka, what would those words be?
SCB: Anetka has hart ducha — a spirited heart. When I discovered those two Polish words — hart ducha — I knew they described Anetka perfectly. I admire her courage, spirit, and strength.
RFA & LMP: What information did you learn about the immigrants that you think is really important for your readers to understand?
SCB: I hope readers understand that our country grew as immigrants — men, women, girls, and boys — contributed their diversity, talents, and skills to their new homeland.
Ever since I heard my husband's grandparents talk about their experiences in the coal region of Pennsylvania, I became intrigued. His grandfather emigrated from Italy as a nine-year-old boy, and began working when he was eleven.
I began to wonder: what was it like to emigrate to a strange country, where you couldn't even speak the language? The immigrants were hard-working people who were eager to prove themselves. Polish men, for example, often accepted the worst and most dangerous jobs in the mines for the least pay. These were jobs nobody else wanted. Devoted to their family and friends, Polish men were often the first to volunteer for risky rescue operations after a disaster. Many times their bravery cost them their lives or resulted in injury.
RFA & LMP: What is one question you would like to ask your readers after they have finished reading A Coal Miner's Bride?
SCB: Do you have hart ducha?
Interview conducted 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.