Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gold Dust on His Shirt by Irene Howard

Gold Dust on His Shirt: The True Story of an Immigrant Mining Family is Irene Howard's story of the Nelson family, particularly her Swedish father Alfred and her Norwegian mother Ingeborg. The story follows the family from the early 1900s through the end of World War II, moving from mine to mine as Irene's father and later her older brothers do their best to make a living. Much of the book takes place in British Columbia, Canada, though her father did work at a mine in Idaho for a time. Howard provides a map in the beginning of the book to helps readers keep track of the family's travels. Alfred began blasting rock to make way for the railroad, then ended his working days at various gold mines.

The mining life was not an easy one, especially in the days when wages were barely enough to stay alive and there were few safety regulations in place. Howard discusses the politics of the railroads and the development of mining towns, as well as workers' attempts to form a union to receive a fair wage and safer working conditions. She provides plenty of descriptions of how gold is harvested from the rock and how mining towns came about, and she keeps the story interesting by mixing facts gathered from years of research with interviews with her brothers and others she knew from the mines. I especially enjoyed her descriptions of events that happened when she was just a child, hearing the talk of the miners in her kitchen not knowing until years later that they were discussing strikes and unionization. She doesn't recall all of the details of the cabin she spent a lot of time in as a child, but she recalls the smells and the sounds of rowdy children.

I was worried that descriptions of mining and the lives of the workers and their families would be dull at times, but Howard writes with such affection for her parents and siblings that the Nelson family comes alive. Each chapter begins with photos, many of her family, and it was nice to put a face to her descriptions. The chapter about her mother and how she was always pregnant or with a baby in her arms every time the family moved captured my attention. Though just a child at the time, Howard understood what it was like to be a woman, giving a description of how laundry was a back-breaking task and reminding us that it was illegal at that time to distribute information about birth control.

As the daughter of an immigrant, I've always been interested in stories about people who leave their lives behind in their country of birth to begin anew in a strange country. This passage toward the end really caught my eye:

He [Alfred, Irene's father] had been breathing rock dust for most of his working life, perhaps even in Sweden when he worked at Kiruna, an iron mine in Northern Sweden. Breathing rock dust wasn't what he planned to do in Canada. After all, the first thing he did when he came to Canada was pre-empt a parcel of land in Kenora. For whatever reason, he was not destined to be a farmer in Northern Ontario, and he ended up moving on west with the railway, and in Prince Rupert working for years drilling with sledgehammer and steel and blasting out the rock cuts of Kaien Island to build the city streets. He breathed rock dust, but he was still young. And he got married to a beautiful, young Norwegian widow. They had a house of their own that he himself built on English Hill--a house with a verandah where he and Ingeborg posed for the camera, his first-born in a sailor suit, holding his hand, a second son in christening robe in his mother's arms. They were part of the Scandinavian community in Price Rupert, they knew the Norwegian Consul, they played Caruso on their gramophone.

It was when Alfred became a miner that he began learning rock dust, learning quartz dust. He was breathing sharp little particles of silica that bit into his lungs, microscopic particles that didn't settle because ventilation systems and stoper-drilling with water only partially cleared the air. He would have liked to find other work, but he had to earn a living and times were hard. He had to move his family from camp to camp, and everywhere they went my father went down in the mine and breathed quartz dust. (page 214)

I think this passage sums up what it was like to be an immigrant during this time. These were people looking for a better life who did the best they could as the nations of North America were industrialized. In a time when most jobs are completed using computers, I think we forget how tough it was for our ancestors, who depended on their hands and the strength of their bodies to support their families. If you're looking to learn about this time in history from the perspective of an insider or you find immigrant stories interesting, Gold Dust on His Shirt is definitely worth your time.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of Gold Dust on His Shirt from Between the Lines for review purposes.


Anonymous said...

My grandparents immigrated to this country, so I love immigrant stories. This one sounds interesting.

Dawn said...

This sounds like a great one! Thanks for the lead Anna! I often think about how hard life has been for our ancestors. My Grandparents worked very hard to make their lives and our lives better. We have a lot to be grateful for.

Sandy Nawrot said...

You gotta love the memoirs. There is nothing like a true story to touch you in your heart. Sometimes I am even amazed at what my husband went through, immigrating here from Poland when the country was being ripped apart by Communism and martial law. I need to read this book...I know I would appreciate it.

Serena said...

Interesting take on the story. I can't wait to start reading my copy!

Keyo said...

hey..thanks for stopping by and for the sweet words. thank you! yes i m glad i got to be alone with hubby! :)

Lenore Appelhans said...

Immigrant stories are often very enlightening. My grandmother used to talk about the hardships her grandparents went through when they came to the states from Germany.

Lynda said...

This sounds a really good book ;0)

Darlene said...

I've never heard of this book before but it sounds great. Thanks for the great review!

Ladytink_534 said...

The whole idea of working in a mine has always scared me. I guess I read too many cave-in ghost stories as a kid lol. Sounds like an interesting story though!

Shana said...

I love it when a writer takes facts that would otherwise get a little dry and weaves a compelling story.


Michele said...

Nice review, Anna! I love reading different historical experiences and definitely think the immirgrant experience is an important one. Lovely recommendation.

Anna said...

Bermudaonion: I hope you get a chance to read it some day.

Dawn: So true! One of my grandmothers was forced to leave school after the 6th grade because her mother died and she needed to take care of all the kids. It wasn't an easy life back then.

Sandy: I thought of my grandparents coming from Germany after WWII, the joy at escaping the pain there and finding that life in America wasn't much easier for them.

Serena: I can't wait to hear your thoughts on it!

Keyomi: I was so glad to hear it!

Lenore: My mother and her parents came from Germany, too. My mother was very little so she doesn't remember too much. My grandmother used to tell me stories, but she died when I was 10. I wish I could've talked to her as an adult.

Lynda: It was!

Dar: I hadn't heard of it until Mini Book Expo. They have a lot of obscure titles, and I've been lucky with my selections so far.

Ladytink: The author touches upon the dangers of mining and describes the death of someone she knew in an accident. It sounded very scary.

Shana: If there wasn't that familial connection, if she hadn't witness some of these things, it wouldn't have been as interesting.

Michele: Thanks! I think this one fits in that "important" category. She covers so much ground with immigration, unionization, family life. It really is a great story.

Anonymous said...

My Great-Aunt wrote this book, so I'm glad everyone has enjoyed it so far.
I read it too and though I found the political bits usually quite boring. I loved the parts about my family, especially the bits about my grandpa who died when I was one.
Everyone else who read it (and they usually didn't enjoy the other books) loved it.

Anna said...

*Anonymous: Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your honest assessment.