By Lauren McKinney
Mahanoy City, at the northern tip of Schuylkill County, is an obscure place to most of us. However, to Katie Crawford, it is the source of much of her family’s identity and strength.
Her grandmother Maggie (“Nana”) grew up there, a coal miner’s daughter, in great hardship and poverty. But Maggie escaped the mining life by becoming a nurse in Philadelphia and marrying a doctor, to live eventually in a huge house in Germantown and raise six children.
Katie hadn’t thought that much about her Nana’s background or her rise in wealth and status, until she became a mother to her son, John, in 2001. “I mainly remember her from when I was a child, when I just thought of her as a loving grandmother. I didn’t ask her about her past.” She added, “I worry about my kids all the time, but imagine what there was to worry about back then in a coal town. Becoming a mother made me grow up and think about these things. And what was it like in Philadelphia? Were people snobby? That’s back when doctors had a lot of social status. But, my Nana didn’t care about any of that. She was the most loving and down-to-earth person I ever knew. And, she was really funny, too.”
It was too late for Katie to ask her Nana, so she took a different turn. In 2001 she began to write a novel about a girl named Maggie, raised in Mahanoy City, who escapes by becoming a nurse in Philadelphia and marrying a doctor, and who lives in a big stone house and has six children. But although Katie has taken the same culture, era, names, and details from her family stories and her own memories, she has created very different characters and plot points. The only historical research she did was to visit a small mining museum in Schuylkill County to learn about the mining families’ daily lives and see photos of “the Patch,” or the camp, where the miners and their families lived.
The novel grew slowly, stalling for stretches of time as three more children were born (Ava, Rowe, and Anthony). Throughout the journey, Katie has had a few dedicated, thoughtful readers, especially her Spanish professor from Swarthmore College (she was class of ‘93), John Hassett, and his wife, Elizabeth Subercaseaux.
Her local friend and poet Angela Shaw (class of ‘91) has also read drafts, and suggested that Katie read the memoir Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas, which gave her the idea to craft short vignettes as whole chapters.
Katie’s brother, Bryan Lentz, connected her to the small family-run publisher Deeds. And that’s how one really lovely and affecting first novel was pushed out into the world.