John Kekec is not a local author, but he recently finished a historical-fiction novel about an era that many families in the Wyoming Valley are very familiar with.
He even drew some inspiration from the history of mining in our region for his latest work.
Kekec, 80, of Bonne Terre, Missouri, is a retired Mineral Area College instructor. He recently finished writing “Fire in the Hole,” a story that tells about the lives of miners and their families.
Kekec said a number of authors over the years have covered the mining area extensively, “but really, there’s nothing that’s been done on coal mining on this country, especially in the Appalachian Coal Belt.”
He is no stranger to the mining world. Along with his work as an educator, he is a second- and third-generation descendant of several of the deep-shaft coal mining families. Kekec has been writing for about 20 years, and his work includes essays, poems and family stories.
“Fire in the Hole,” however, is a special addition to his list of works.
‘This is the book that I always wanted to get written,” he said.
Between the covers
Kekec’s book takes place in Southern Kansas, but he said it jumps to different people and events in the Appalachian Coal Belt. He described it as an action/adventure tale, and he said he drew inspirations from different personalities in the industry, such as early mine labor leader John Mitchell and Mother Mary Harris Jones, a late 19th- and early 20th-century pro-labor agitator.
He even took inspiration from various events, such as the Lattimer Massacre, that happened near Hazleton.
On Sept. 10, 1897, miners went on strike and began to march. They were stopped by Luzerne County Sheriff James Martin. The confrontation led to confusion and shots fires. Nineteen miners were killed and more than 50 were wounded.
Kekec said mining families usually consisted of immigrant groups, and said Hungarians were primarily found in Pennsylvania. Kekec described the camps that families lived in as “primitive,” but said they made the best of what they had.
“They all stuck together,” he said.
Even the women in the camps had their roles. Kekec said women were expected to take care of the children, do the laundry and buy fresh meat for meals. Cooking was also no easy task, Kekec said, with women having to use coal- and wood-fired stoves.
Women also served as midwives for one another when children were born.
“They had to do it all,” Kekec said. “It was a full-time job.”
Despite the gloomy settings of the camps, weekends were a time of fun for families. Kekec said men and women often shared an interest in one activity — drinking.
“There was always liquor around,” he said. He said saloons were a popular gathering spot.
Baseball also brought families together on the weekend. Kekec said coal mines often had baseball games. An outing on a weekend would have consisted of a picnic and beer while families watched the games.
Kekec said he worked to write a fictional story while adhering to historically accurate setting and facts.
Kekec said history is best remembered from historical fiction, and he said there’s not much of it pertaining to the coal mining era.
Kekec said he wanted to give an insightful view of what coal mining was like, along with the good and the bad that families had to endure.
He also wanted to bring attention to the generations of people who lived through the era and “resurrect a generation that lived their lives in the best way that they could.”