'Darkness Visible: A Novel of The 1892 Homestead Strike' - Interview With Author Trilby Busch
This is a book that works on many different levels. With a full complement of credible and well developed characters it is a useful contribution to the social history of late 19th century industrial Pennsylvania. There is no shortage of drama. The account of the pitched battle between the strikers and Pinkertons which is central to this tale does full justice to the tragedy and horror of the actual historical events.
For anyone who is not acquainted with this dark and violent chapter in the history of American labour relations the brief introductory remarks and accompanying links in the interview below should provide an invaluable introduction.
On a personal level Darkness Visible is the story of a Welsh immigrant worker who loses and recovers his faith, a process in which the appalling developments unfolding around him play no small part . But perhaps more interestingly it has been written by a fourth generation descendant of one of the casualties of the conflict ( for more details see the interview below ). This provides the author with a unique historical perspective and her devotion to recounting these events is evident both from her painstaking and meticulous background research and from the sympathetic and artful manner in which she develops the narrative.
This is an important book about an important event. If you read only one work of historical fiction this year, it should probably be 'Darkness Visible'.
AmeriCymru: What inspired you to write Darkness Visible?
Trilby: My parents and I were all born in Homestead, Pennsylvania, and both sets of grandparents lived and worked there most of their lives. During my childhood, everyone in town-- and probably most people in the Pittsburgh area-- had heard about the 1892 strike.
I grew up listening to stories from my father, whose grandfather was killed in the Homestead Works of Carnegie Steel in the immediate aftermath of the strike. As I did research to corroborate his stories and learn more details about the strike, I found many terrible and fascinating stories from contemporaries and eyewitnesses. I wrote this book as an imaginative recreation of those events in a work of historical fiction.
The Homestead works from across the river
AmeriCymru: Tell us a little about the 1892 strike. How significant an event is it in American labor history?
Trilby: The 1892 Homestead Strike is a very significant event in American history. The strike was chosen as one of the events featured in the 2006 PBS-TV series, "Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America." The violence surrounding the confrontation between workers and company is an infamous chapter in labor history. Henry Clay Frick , running the company while Carnegie was off in Scotland, locked out the workers at the end of June 1892. On July 6th, the conflict came to a head when Frick sent in 300 Pinkerton guards to secure the way for replacement workers. They were met by 3,000 armed strikers and townspeople and a 10-hour running gun battle ensued. In the end, the strikers won, but inevitably lost the war a week later when Frick convinced the governor to send in the Pennsylvania Militia. In this way, Frick and Carnegie busted unions in the steel industry for nearly 40 years.
AmeriCymru: You have a personal connection with these events. Can you tell us more?
Trilby: As I said, my great-grandfather was killed in the Works after the strike. He was an unemployed German immigrant with a wife and 11 children to support. After the battle, the Carnegie Company desperately needed skilled "fireman" to fire up the industrial boilers that ran the mill, and he answered the call. He was killed by union saboteurs who set a boiler to explode while he was working on it. Fictional versions of him, my grandfather, and other family members appear as minor characters in the book.
AmeriCymru: Was there a strong Welsh involvement in the strike movement?
Trilby: Yes. Many of the members of the union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers , were Welsh. At that time Wales led the world in the technology of steel production, and the Carnegie Company actively recruited engineers, chemists, and skilled workers from Wales.
AmeriCymru: What was the subsequent history of the Homestead Works?
Trilby: In 1901 Carnegie sold the company to J.P. Morgan of US Steel. In 1937, anticipating the need for steel in the war that loomed on the horizon, US Steel took over the whole lower part of Homestead below the railroad tracks, expanding the Works into that area. In its heyday, the Homestead Works produced nearly one-third of the finished steel in the United States, a behemoth operation spreading for five miles along the bank of the Monongahela River. In 1983, US Steel, weary of foreign competition and disputes with workers, shut down the Works for good. In its place sits the Waterfront Shopping Complex, a large mixed-use commercial area of stores, apartments, and office buildings.
AmeriCymru: Where can people go to purchase Darkness Visible?
Trilby: Darkness Visible is available for sale via Paypal on its website, and on Amazon.com , you can get either the paperback or Kindle versions. If you go to Homestead, the book is available in the shop of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in the Bost Building.
AmeriCymru: What's next?
Trilby: I'm kicking around two ideas: 1. a sequel taking place in the Depression, following the children of Emlyn Phillips and/or 2. a collaboration with my daughter Ceridwen--a mystery/satire involving ghosthunting and preservation politics in present-day Minnesota.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for readers and members of Americymru?
Trilby: A number of people have gotten confused about my connection with the Welsh characters in the book. Actually, there is none. I am the descendent of scabs, immigrants from another country--as are so many of the present residents of the Steel Valley. However, I decided to use the information and contacts I had acquired in my search for relatives of my Welsh grandmother (a search that was not successful) in developing the characters of the skilled worker and unionist's family in the story.