Bethlehem by Karen Kelly
St Martins Press
“I’ve learned a thing or two in my antiquity —- chief among them that things are seldom what they seem. Often the person who appears the most . . . impenetrable . . . is, in truth, the most fragile.”
As soon as I saw this book, I knew I wanted to read it. The small city of Bethlehem lies just 15 minutes east of where I live. And when I read the description of this historical fiction novel, I was definitely invested. Bethlehem Steel serves as the backdrop of this story. My paternal grandfather was a foreman at Bethlehem Steel during a time when it employed over 31,000 workers. I felt like I had a personal connection to this book before I even read it.
I have struggled with some historical fiction in the past. But I adored this book and not just because I have a frame of reference.
Karen Kelly’s debut has given me back a love of HF that I thought I had lost. (Along with The Chef’s Secret. See my blog for my review!).
In Bethlehem, we meet two families: The Parrishes and the Colliers. Both family patriarchs are Bethlehem Steel magnates and work together at the company. The story is told in alternating timelines, the 1920’s and the 1960’s. Like many HF novels, the slower start gives the reader the setting and introduces the characters. There are a lot of characters, but I found it easy to follow. The novel is so well-written and compelling that I couldn’t stop reading. I finished the book in a day.
The story is about three generations of these families: their friendship with one another, their triumphs and tragedies. These two families are inexorably linked to each another and the secrets they share are long buried. But when Frank Collier moves his wife, Joanna, and their two young children to Bethlehem to live in the grand Parrish house with Frank’s mother, Susannah Parrish Collier, and grandmother, the secrets of these two families begin to slowly reveal themselves.
I won’t reveal any more. No spoilers here. But I can’t recommend this book enough! It publishes tomorrow, July 9th. Thank you so much to @stmartinspress for sending me a copy of this book which I will treasure always.
My grandmother used to tell my brother and I and my cousins a story about my dad. He was born in 1941 and my grandfather was locked inside Bethlehem Steel when my grandmother was in the hospital giving birth. Literally locked inside and none of the workers could leave. My grandfather used to say they had men outside the locked gates with shotguns.
My grandmother told the other women on the hospital ward that her husband would be coming soon and the other women jokingly said to my grandmother that maybe she didn’t have a husband. She assured the women she did indeed have a husband and the next day my grandmother heard the echo of footsteps coming down the hospital corridor. She told the other women, “That’s my husband.” The women laughed, but sure enough, in walked my grandfather. My grandmother knew him so well that she knew the sound of his walk.
It took my grandfather nearly three days for him to get out of Bethlehem Steel so he could see his son. Remember, this was at the height of their WWII production and the workers were locked inside the plant, unable to leave. If I had come back from the future to tell my grandfather that Bethlehem Steel would be gone, its blast furnaces silenced, its executive tower finally demolished last month–he would’ve thought I was crazy. All that remains is the shell of the Steel Stacks that were preserved. Such a sad monument to corporate greed.
Thank you so much to St. Martins Press for my copy! Bethlehem is available July 9th.