Summary: The American Civil War is just beginning, but in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region a daily battle for survival has always been the way of life. Dangerous working conditions and meager salaries have always plagued fourteen-year-old Katie McCafferty’s family, but she has never had so much to worry about in her life. An unexpected accident leaves her financially responsible for her family and the unpopularity of the Civil War draft stirs up violent resistance among the men of the region. When one of Katie’s dearest friends gets mixed up in the violence – and possibly in a secret society called the Molly Maguires – she spares nothing trying to stop him.
Review: Molly Roe is the latest in a line of authors stretching back to the 1800s who have taken up their pens to retell the story of the Molly Maguires. The Mollies, an alleged secret society of Irish-Catholic coal miners, recognized injustice in Pennsylvania’s coal region and subsequently used sabotage and assassination against the authorities throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Their dramatic story has been repeated in various forms ever since.
Many tellers of the Mollies’ story make the men themselves the main characters. Roe does not. She makes her heroine the fourteen-year-old Katie. Her motivation is to base her character on one of her ancestors, but that decision means everything to the story.
Katie embodies a lifestyle from the region – she attends church, runs out at the whistle announcing mine accidents, and works as a domestic to support her family when her injured father cannot. Her story gives a basic picture of 19th-century life in the coal region. But while Roe addresses serious topics in her book – including mine accidents, a war draft, ethnic conflict, and the still controversial Molly Maguires, she manages to keep her book fairly light. Mostly, this is accomplished because the main character is a young girl. When Katie does find herself mixed up with violent men, it is for the sake of friendship. There are masquerading exploits involved that come off as humorous as they are suspenseful. And while Katie sympathizes with the motives of the Mollies – desiring fair treatment of the Irish workers – she staunchly calls for peaceful protest instead of violence.
This is an enjoyable book that serves as a nice introduction to the situation in the coal region at the time of the Molly Maguires. It is a light adventure story that touches on serious situations without weighing the reader down. But this reader recommends that those who enjoy this book continue on to other works that dig deeper into complexities and gravity of everything this book begins to address.