My principal reading task this summer was George Eliot's "Middlemarch" - 900 pages written 142 years ago.
After this magnificent but challenging work, Martin J. Hula's "The Coal Picker" felt like a breath of fresh air.
Hula is a Montoursville resident who published this novel - his first - through Amazon.com late last year.
Narrated in a smooth, convincing first-person voice, it's a crime thriller that reads like a memoir.
Hula's protagonist is Johnny Marko, a World War II veteran who in 1947 returns to the town he'd left 16 years earlier - tiny Moss Creek in western Pennsylvania, where his father was killed in the mine when Johnny was 10.
While the trip is nostalgic - especially as Johnny takes up mining and learns what life was like for his hard-working dad - his real purpose is to unravel the mystery surrounding his father's untimely and suspicious death.
The final one-third of "The Coal Picker" takes several twists and turns as Johnny locks horns with a malicious mine boss who looks more and more like a killer.
Johnny's brainy maneuvering is sometimes tough to swallow, feeling more like an Alistair MacLean secret agent than a young war veteran from a backwoods town - though there is one very nice surprise involving Johnny's mom in the closing pages.
"The Coal Picker" also is marked by numerous spelling and grammar errors, yet although I'm a stickler for these, they aren't especially distracting, thanks largely to the book's enchanting evocation of coal-town life in the first half of the 20th century: using the radio for entertainment; paying five cents a drink at the saloon; walking nearly everywhere; fetching spring water; using an outhouse in the days before indoor plumbing - all recalling one of my favorite books, Homer Hickam's "Rocket Boys" (aka "October Sky").
Like Hickam, Hula suffuses his story with authentic coal-mine details, from the "man trip," "coal breaker" and "boney pile" to the joshing camaraderie of working men to often violent struggles to unionize miners who faced daily danger and death for very little pay.
The book is at its most hauntingly effective in capturing that surreal sense of returning, as an adult, to a place you grew up, with memories both painful and joyous saturating every inch of terrain.
The story was inspired by Hula's own family, who worked in the coal mines of the now-defunct Moss Creek in Cambria County, near Johnstown.
Hula's own grandfather was killed in mysterious circumstances, said to have been accidentally electrocuted in the Moss Creek coal breaker in 1918, when Hula's father was just a boy. The body never was found.
Hula himself did some unpaid mine work as a youth and regularly speaks to Montoursville Area High School students in conjunction with their reading of "Rocket Boys."
Hula's second novel, a Depression-era story called "The Poisoning of Nicholas," will be available on Amazon in the near future.