In 1877, twenty Irish coal miners hanged for a terrorist conspiracy that never occurred.
Anywhere But Schuylkill is the story of one who escaped, Mike Doyle, a teenager trying to keep his family alive during the worst depression the nation has ever faced. Banks and railroads are going under.
Children are dying of hunger. The Reading Railroad has slashed wages and hired Pinkerton spies to infiltrate the miners’ union. And there is a sectarian war between rival gangs.
But none of this compares with the threat at home.
Praise for Anywhere but Schuylkill:
"In the tradition of Upton Sinclair and Jack London, Michael Dunn gives us a gritty portrait of working-class life and activism during one of the most violent eras in U.S. labor history. Anywhere but Schuylkill is a social novel built out of passion and the textures of historical research. It is both a tale of 1870s labor unrest and a tale for the inequalities and injustices of the twenty-first century."
~ Russ Castronovo, author of Beautiful Democracy and Propaganda 1776.
"Michael Dunn has created the characters that bring the 19th Century's Mine Wars to life for today's readers. Anywhere but Schuylkill will remind readers of John Sayles and Tillie Olsen and the best in the long tradition of labor literature."
~ James Tracy, co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Interracial Solidarity in 1960s-70s New Left Organizing
"The Banshees of Inisherin and 1917 are two of the best historical films I've seen in recent years, particularly the cinematography. Yet the visuals Michael Dunn creates in Anywhere But Schuylkill, are richer, more vivid, more imaginative, and more haunting and indelible than what I recall in those brilliant films. It's like the author transports himself to each scene and brings to life each physical detail, each expression, each emotion, and each word of dialogue with the care of a Renaissance painter."
~ David Aretha, award-winning author of Malala Yousafzai and the Girls of Pakistan, and Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington.
Bread or Blood
The Kohinoor breaker dominated the neighborhood like a mountain fortress, with its sharply pitched roofs and impenetrable black walls rising abruptly from the craggy hill, and its dozens of tiny windows that resembled gun openings. The slopes rising up to it, scorched from a decade’s worth of tailings, were crumbly and unclimbable. The main entrance at the top of Center Street, clearly visible from the Hurleys’ front yard, was usually guarded by one or two Coal and Iron Police. Today there were ten, each with a rifle hanging from his shoulder.
The hairs bristled on the back of Mike’s neck as they marched in front of the breaker. Even wedged between Tom and his da, with Eddie and Gibbons behind him, and a warm cup of tea in his hands, he was as cold as if he was naked. The sun wasn’t even visible yet and the air was already filled with coal and tobacco smoke, and the sound of thunking engines. And several wagons full of shadowy men were parked in front of the breaker, as if it was a normal workday without a strike going on.
“Damned blacklegs!” Gibbons said. He struck a lucifer and lit his cigar.
Mr. Hurley shook his head. “Heckscher musta snuck ’em in through the back at two or three this
morning. Otherwise we woulda heard the wagons driving past.”
“They ain’t even from here,” Eddie said, flicking his hand in front of his nose.
“Where ye reckon they’re from?” said Mr. Hurley.
“New York City. We’ve been yankin’ ’em off wagons all week.”
“An’ beating ’em to a bloody pulp!” Gibbons added with a grin. He puffed on his stogie.
Tom winked. “That’s how ye win a strike!”
Mr. Hurley scratched his head, frowning. “Well, I reckon it doesn’t matter where they’re from. Right now, they’re up there with those yellow dogs, getting ready to crack coal.”
Eddie’s eyes gleamed. “Then we’ll just hafta go up there and stop ’em, won’t we?”
Mr. Hurley pulled Mike and Tom closer to him. “That would be suicide!”
“Would be if we were unarmed.” Eddie lifted his shirt to reveal a gun tucked into his waistband. Gibbons had one, too.
Mike wanted to look away but couldn’t. His field of view had narrowed so much that all he could see was the smooth wooden grip, framed by Eddie’s brass suspender hooks, and the lustrous metal cylinder disappearing into his pants. His hands started to shake. What if the cops saw it?
“You crazy?” Mr. Hurley said. “They’ve got repeating rifles!”
“They wouldn’t dare!” said Gibbons. “There’s women and children here. Besides, we’d murder ’em if they did. Look how many of us there are.”
Mike peered down Center Street. There was a large crowd marching toward them. Breaker boys and mule drivers, pockets bulging with rocks. Women with rolling pins and broomsticks, sleeves rolled up and ready for battle. And scores of miners and laborers who, according to Eddie, represented every nationality and coll’ry in town.
Mr. Hurley rubbed his cheek, as if adding everything up. “Well, Gibbons has a point. Some of those cops live right here in town. I don’t reckon they’d shoot their own kin.”
Mike briefly closed his eyes. He wanted to be still for a moment, let the relief sink in, but Tom was yanking on his sleeve, bobbing up and down like his feet were on fire.
Michael Lawler was marching toward them with Fenton Cooney, who was carrying an American flag on a pole, and Coyne, who was wearing a coat and tie. Big Ned Monaghan and Cosgrove were right behind them, along with Johnny Morris and dozens of others.
Eddie jumped into the street, waving his arms.
“What are yiz waiting for? Let’s shut Heckscher down!”
Gibbons tossed his stogie into the dirt and joined him.
Michael Lawler hiked a few yards up the hill, then turned and faced the crowd. His voice was low and steady.
“Brothers, what do we want?”
“And how’re we gonna get it?”
“Shut ’em down!”
Lawler had a playful gleam in his eye. “That’s right, brothers. Shut ’em down!”
He turned and began marching up the hill, with Cooney and Coyne on either side of him. Eddie, Gibbons, Big Ned, and Johnny Morris were in the next row. Mike joined Tom beside them. He glanced over his shoulder. Mr. Hurley was right behind them with Koontz and a few of his Dutch buddies. Beyond them, the road was completely filled, all the way to Tom’s house, with people marching six abreast, shouting, chanting, waving tools in the air.
The back of Mike’s scalp sizzled, like a spark running up a fuse. A cozy glow spread throughout his body. He turned and threw an arm around Tom’s shoulder. They strutted side by side, chanting and hooting until his voice cracked. The ground was spongy beneath his boots, which grew lighter with each step, even as the road got steeper. He wished Hannah was there. He would’ve kissed her right on the lips. Who cares what anyone thinks? Heck, he might even kiss her cousin Eddie, the way he was feeling.
Instead, he crashed into Eddie, who had stopped unexpectedly halfway up the hill.
Five yellow dogs blocked their way, rifles aimed directly at them. Another three were posted on the train trestle above them. All were young and slim, except the one in the middle, who was portly, with two silvery spikes of fuzz jutting from his chin, like bolts of lightning.
“Turn around now!” he said. “Don’t make us shoot.”
“Ye wouldn’t dare!” someone yelled.
Coyne and Michael Lawler conferred briefly, but all Mike could make out was Coyne saying it wasn’t worth dying for and Lawler saying that if they turned back now, the strike was lost.
Eddie pushed past them, along with Gibbons and Big Ned.
“We ain’t stoppin’ till we’ve shut this coll’ry down!”
“Eddie,” Coyne pleaded. “Think about what you’re doing.”
“They won’t shoot their own neighbors.”
“They’re scared, Eddie. They don’t wanna die at the hands of a mob. Lemme talk to ’em. See if I can settle things down.”
“Suit yourself, Coyne, but we ain’t turning back.”
Coyne raised his hands above his head and approached the cop calmly.
“Look, fellers, I just wanna talk. See if we can settle this without bloodshed. You’re from ’round here, ain’t ye? Ye know how hard it is to make living.”
“Stop where you are!” the older cop commanded. “We ain’t here to fraternize.”
Coyne raised his hands higher, took another step.
A cop leapt forward, knocking him to the ground.
“Release our buddy!” Eddie hollered.
“We want Heckscher!” his uncle roared. “Bring out Heckscher!”
“Heck-scher! Heck-scher!” the mob chanted.
Just then, Heckscher appeared at the breaker entrance on a large white horse. His chest was so puffed out that the brass buttons of his greatcoat looked ready to pop. There were yellow epaulettes on his shoulders and a sword hanging from his belt. He waved his gun in the air, sneering down at them. “What’s all this?”
“Bread or blood!” the mob chanted. “Bread or blood!”
“Alright,” he roared, aiming his gun at the crowd. “A diet of blood it is! There’ll be no commune here.”
Michael Dunn writes Working-Class Fiction from the Not So Gilded Age. Anywhere But Schuylkill is the first in his Great Upheaval trilogy.
A lifelong union activist, he has always been drawn to stories of the past, particularly those of regular working people, struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families. Stories most people do not know, or have forgotten, because history is written by the victors, the robber barons and plutocrats, not the workers and immigrants. Yet their stories are among the most compelling in America. They resonate today because they are the stories of our own ancestors, because their passions and desires, struggles and tragedies, were so similar to our own.
When Michael Dunn is not writing historical fiction, he teaches high school, and writes about labor history and culture.