by Gloria Skurzynski, Michael Benny

Is Tommy guilty of his uncle's murder at the hands of anti-union detectives? He thinks so, and the guilt plunges him into despair. His life becomes as dark as the coal mine where he works to support his mother.

In the blackness of the mine, Tommy teaches himself to play the guitar; soon he's performing at parties and dances in coal-mining towns throughout


Is Tommy guilty of his uncle's murder at the hands of anti-union detectives? He thinks so, and the guilt plunges him into despair. His life becomes as dark as the coal mine where he works to support his mother.

In the blackness of the mine, Tommy teaches himself to play the guitar; soon he's performing at parties and dances in coal-mining towns throughout eastern Utah. One Christmas Eve, he meets lovely Eugenie, the mine owner's daughter, and writes a song for her. The two sixteen-year-olds fall in love, but because Tommy is a lowly laborer in the mine, Eugenie decides they should keep their meetings secret.

After union songwriter Joe Hill is convicted of murder in an unfair trial, Tommy is asked to be Joe's successor, to write the powerful, pro-union songs that will rally working men and women to the union cause. Tommy is torn -- if he accepts, he'll lose his job in the mine and he may lose Eugenie; if he refuses, he'll be turning away from the people he's worked with since he was eleven years old.

Riding on a train to Chicago where he'll sing at Joe Hill's funeral, Tommy reviews the crucial events of his life, from his Uncle Jim's death to his love for Eugenie to his last, memorable meeting with Joe Hill. As he sings his final tribute at the funeral, it becomes clear to Tommy what he wants to do with his life.

Many of the events in these pages actually happened, including early labor unrest, the two murder trials, and the dramatic execution of Joe Hill.

Gloria Skurzynski says, "As we live and work in the Internet Age, we forget that a century ago, most people earned their daily bread through hard manual labor. All across the U.S., union organizers roused workers to strike for safer conditions and higher wages. In the West, songwriter Joe Hill achieved his wish to become a martyr for the union cause. Perhaps Joe finally found that 'pie in the sky,' a phrase he coined that we still use today."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Skurzynski's (Spider's Voice) taut historical novel examines the plight and maturation of a boy caught in the crossfire of the early labor movement. Spanning eight years, the novel opens in 1907, when 10-year-old Tommy travels with his charming Uncle Jim from their Utah coal mine home to Boise, Idaho, to secretly deliver funds to help with union leader Big Bill Haywood's trial. However, when Tommy inadvertently reveals his uncle's identity (he's prominent in the union) to Pinkerton detectives, Jim is hustled off the train and later found dead. Tommy blames himself for Jim's death: "He would keep the terrible truth locked inside himself until the day they lowered him into his own grave." Tommy leaves school to work in the mines and help support himself and his mother, and in his relatively protected job as trapper boy he practices guitar, a talent which ultimately earns extra money and some fame. As Tom progresses from trapper to rockbuster, boy to man, Skurzynski effectively portrays the conflict, acrimony and even hypocrisy of the early union movement. When Wobbly songster Joe Hill, sentenced to death on a trumped-up murder charge, asks Tom to play at his funeral and take up his role in the movement, Tom must decide how he can best make a difference and how it will affect his romance with the mine owner's daughter. Readers will admire Tom for finding his own path to help ameliorate inequity and injustice. Ages 12-up. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
Accompanying his uncle Jim to Chicago to bring money from the miners for the defense of Big Bill Haywood, ten-year-old Tommy Quinlan suddenly finds himself alone when the Pinkertons recognize his uncle as a man they have been searching for. Tommy completes the train ride to Chicago and gives the money to Haywood, who sees that he gets back to his home in Castle Gate, Utah. Tommy is certain that he was responsible for his uncle's death. Much to his widowed mother's chagrin, he quits school when he is old enough to work in the coal mines. His love of music and his ability to play the guitar provide a way for him to get out of the mines when union songwriter Joe Hill is convicted of murder. Tommy is asked to take his place in creating songs that will rouse the laborers. A romance between the mine-owner's daughter and Tommy heightens the reader's understanding of the differences between blue collar and white collar workers at the turn of the twentieth century. Readers will become engrossed in this story right from its action-packed start. The story begins in 1907 and continues through 1915. Skurzynski presents a full picture of the time period�the effects of World War I on mining, the back-breaking work of the coal miner, the difficulties faced by union-organizers, the socialist party in America, the treatment of immigrants and the search for the American dream. 2001, Atheneum,
— Sharon Salluzzo
Tommy Quinlan, an 18-year-old coal miner in a small town in Utah, has been tangled up in union business all his life. When he is only 10, in 1907, his uncle, who works for the United Mine Workers union, takes him along on a dangerous mission to either pay for the lawyers for Big Bill Haywood, a union boss accused of murder—or bribe the jail guards to break him out. The uncle is captured and killed by Pinkerton detectives, but Tommy manages to deliver the cash. His uncle's death means that Tommy and his widowed mother must scramble for money to feed themselves, and Tommy is forced to leave school and go to work in the mines. He inherits his uncle's guitar, and slowly builds a reputation as a musician, entertaining others for extra income. When at the age of 16 Tommy is invited to perform at the mine owner's home, he meets the man's teenage daughter, Eugenie. They fall in love, despite the class difference that divides them, but must sneak about behind her father's back. Tommy's music also brings him to the attention of Joe Hill, who wants him to become "a singing, song-writing troubadour for the Industrial Workers of the World" and leaves behind a request that Tommy sing at his funeral—though his job as a miner will be at stake. "It seems everyone has a different idea of what I ought to become, Mom," Tommy complains, but in the end he vows to become his own man, not a musician, a miner, or a union man, but a lawyer, to fight for justice for all. This interesting historical novel provides much information on early union struggles and court cases that YAs might not know about. Historical figures like Bill Haywood and Joe Hill come to life here, and the novel includes a bri ef listof books, Web sites, and songs for further reference at the end. Tommy's difficulties are believable and will elicit readers' sympathy, as he toils in the mines, experiences ups and downs in his relationship with Eugenie, gets shot at, and in general behaves honorably and even heroically while trying to chart his own course. KLIATT Codes: JS—Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2001, Simon & Schuster, Atheneum, 272p. bibliog., $16.00. Ages 13 to 18. Reviewer: Paula Rohrlick; KLIATT , November 2001 (Vol. 35, No. 6)
Beautifully orchestrated historical fiction, this novel addresses early twentieth-century unionization efforts. Coal miners and union organizers engage Tommy Quinlan, whose father died in the mines and whose uncle was murdered for unionization efforts, and his hard-working mother, who has sworn not to marry another miner but loves one. Income from her laundry business is augmented when eleven-year-old Tommy leaves school to become a trapper boy in the mines—opening the trap door periodically for the miners—a job that allows him to focus on his love—music. Tommy encounters historical figures Bill Haywood and Joe Hill, hard-core union organizers at the turn of the century whose experiences with the United States justice system were disillusioning. Nationalism and cultural pride loom large as workers wrestle with issues that could band together immigrants from all across Europe. Skurzynski even provides romance as Tommy falls in love with the mine owner's daughter. Faults of the legal justice system not withstanding, Rockbuster realizes the American dream that hard work, clean living, and heart combine to allow good to prevail and that success awaits the man who pulls himself up by the bootstraps. Reading this book makes one believe the myth wholeheartedly. The cover art, however, is misleading in view of the author's meticulous work. Tommy is shown exiting the mine carrying both mining pick and guitar, when he would carry each separately, pursuing either his love of music or life in the mines The emergence of a poetic voice is occasionally jarring. Nevertheless librarians, teachers, and parents should invest in this book now. Although best suited for junior high readers,reluctant high schoolers will enjoy the story as well. Union members, especially UAW/AFL-CIO readers of Solidarity, the union newsletter, will want to share this book with their kids. VOYA CODES:4Q 4P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses;Broad general YA appeal;Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9;Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2001, Simon & Schuster, 272p, $16. Ages 12 to 18. Reviewer:Cynthia L. Blinn—VOYA, December 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 5)
School Library Journal - School Library Journal
Gr 6-10-After the deaths of his father and uncle, Tommy Quinlan goes to work in the coal mines to help support his mother and himself. Since his job as a trapper involves periodic activity, he uses the quiet time to teach himself the guitar. He eventually becomes a laborer and after years of practicing his instrument, the teen begins to play at local gatherings to supplement the family's income. It is at one of these that he meets the mine owner's daughter, and they begin a stolen romance. Though Tommy loves Eugenie, he finds himself resentful of their class differences. His friends among the union supporters urge him to take a more active part and they call upon him to perform the rousing songs of the labor movement. When Joe Hill, the beloved union songwriter who has been unjustly convicted of murder and condemned to death, calls upon Tommy to become his successor, the boy must decide where his loyalties lie. This finely crafted and richly detailed coming-of-age story is made both distinctive and universal as readers follow Tommy's maturation. Skurzynski's research into the lives of Utah miners in the early 20th century and the efforts of workers to organize becomes evident in her convincing portrayal of their world, their cares, and their struggles. Rockbuster is an engaging story of self-discovery that teens will relate to on many levels.-Heather Dieffenbach, Lexington Public Library, KY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Eighteen-year-old Tommy Quinlan is riding the train from Salt Lake City to Chicago for the funeral of Joe Hill. The smells, noise, and movement bring back memories of a train ride eight years earlier with his uncle, a coal mining union activist. The two were on their way to Idaho for the murder trial of Big Bill Haywood and hidden inside a cigar box was one thousand dollars for the defense fund. Tommy feels guilty when Pinkerton detectives drag his uncle from the train and murder him, but he does manage to deliver the money. Back home in his small mining town, Tommy starts to work the mines to help support his widowed mother and discovers a gift for the guitar, honing his skills in the underground blackness. As the years pass, his work grows more dangerous, but his gift for making up lyrics to popular tunes and playing in saloons helps bring in money. Almost predictably, he falls in love with a girl from the other side of the tracks, actually the daughter of the man who owns the mine. Their romance is difficult, carried out in secrecy and over long distances. When Tommy is urged to sing the union's cause and carry forward the work of Joe Hill, he harbors doubts about the direction of his life. Ultimately, he decides that he must be his own man and not give up the girl he loves. He will use his gift of word making as a lawyer and advance the cause of labor in that manner. Skurzynski (Ghost Horses, 2000, etc.) presents a good picture of the horrors of life in the pre-WWI western coal mines. However, in spite of Tommy's meetings with Haywood and Hill, they remain somewhat distant and sketchy characters. The ongoing courtship of his mother by a miner and the difficulties of his own romanceoften slow down the pace of the narration and the storytelling lacks the strength and power of its subject. (Fiction. YA)

Product Details

Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.95(d)
860L (what's this?)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

From Part Four: Murderer or Martyr

Chapter Fifteen 1915

Tommy's world had changed, all right. No more eight-hour days. Because the war machine in Europe needed American steel, and steel mills needed coal, he'd begun to work ten and twelve hours a day. Miners' wages had risen without even the threat of a strike. His mother had bought another washing machine and hired another girl. Tommy had quit singing in saloons, and even at parties. He was too tired, he didn't need the money, and his heart was no longer in his music. As his muscles hardened from the intensive labor his heart was hardening too.

Over the Christmas weekend Black Edo had invited him to a dance at the Slovenian Hall. All evening long Tommy had danced with Jana Zagar. She was pretty, she was sweet, pleasant, and a good dancer, and she seemed to like him. When the evening ended, Tommy had been glad to leave the hall—alone. Nice as she was, he had no interest in Jana Zagar or any other girl.

On New Year's Day Tommy opened the door to find Eugenie standing on his doorstep, her hair and eyelashes speckled with flakes of falling snow. For a long moment they looked at each other, saying nothing, until Fiona called out, "Who is it, Tommy?"

"It's Eugenie Farnham, Mom."

"Well, for heaven's sake invite her in and close the door. You're chilling the whole house." Fiona came forward, all smiles, offering her rough, chapped hands to Eugenie's gloved ones. "How nice to see you, Miss Farnham. Please take off your wraps and warm yourself at the stove. Would you have a cup of tea? You will, won't you?"

"I can't stay. I just brought this book for Tommy," Eugenie answered, handing him a package wrapped in brown paper. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold, and her eyes looked too bright as she unwound a scarf from around her head. "My brother Glenn sent it for you, Tommy," she told him.

Awkwardly he took it from her hands and undid the wrapping. Inside was a beautiful volume with gilt edges on the pages. The Oxford Book of English Verse. "Why—?" he began, but Eugenie broke in, speaking to Fiona, "Glenn sent all his books home. He wanted that one especially to go to Tommy, because he thinks Tommy is so clever as a writer of lyrics, and lyrics are very much like poetry." The way she was speaking to Fiona, she didn't sound at all like Eugenie, but like some stiff, elegant parody of the girl Tommy knew. "You see, Mrs. Quinlan, my brother has left Oxford to join the British army."

"Oh, my dear," Fiona said, sounding unlike herself too. The two women were behaving as if they were characters on a stage, very properly reciting the lines expected of them. "That must worry your poor mother a great deal."

For a moment Eugenie's guard slipped. "Yes, it does," she said, her voice low. Then she smiled, held out her hand again, and said, "I must be going."

"Tommy!" Fiona ordered. "Put on your coat and muffler and walk Miss Farnham home."

"That won't be necessary," Eugenie said.

"Of course it is! It's dark out there. Tommy, hurry! Don't make Miss Farnham wait."

Eugenie kept her eyes cast down as Tommy shrugged into his overcoat. "Take Miss Farnham's arm," Fiona instructed him. "There's snow on the porch and it might be slippery. Good night, Miss Farnham. When you write your brother, please thank him for his thoughtfulness."

As soon as they got into the street, Tommy dropped Eugenie's arm. Both of them stared straight ahead as they walked. In a low voice Eugenie asked, "Why didn't you come that night last summer? Why haven't you written? Or telephoned? I'd have met you wherever you said."

His jaw worked before he answered, "The empress Eugenie should find herself a prince, at least. Not a serf who burrows underground shoveling coal."

She stopped dead. "Oh, Tommy, that's cruel. I don't deserve that."

"So, what made Glenn send me that book? Don't try to kid me that he thinks I'm a poet. That's your idea, isn't it, to turn me into something respectable?"


"Face it—I don't deserve you, Eugenie. The price of coal keeps going up, so you're a lot richer now than you were just last summer. For sure you'll require some college-educated man with a future."

"I knew that was what it was!" she cried, her voice rising. "If only you'd listened, I said that was what my parents wanted for me, not what I wanted!"

"Eugenie, I don't think we should talk about this. I've had six months to get over you—"

"Have you?" she asked.

"Gotten over you? Yes," he lied. "How about you? How's college? Have you met any nice young men with bright futures?" He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice.

For a long time she stayed silent. Then she said, "I don't know you anymore, Tommy. Don't bother walking the rest of the way with me."

As he watched her disappear into the darkness, all the anguish he'd suppressed for all those months mutinied, mounting the barricades to break out in the first tears he'd cried in years. "Eugenie," he whispered. "I'm sorry." He stood rooted to the spot until the snow covered his boots up to the ankles. Then he went home to lie in bed with The Oxford Book of English Verse pressed against his cheek because her hands had touched it.

Everything in Tommy's world was black. He worked in the blackness of the mines from the hours before dawn to the hours after sunset and emerged into the blackness of the night, even when the days grew longer at the vernal equinox. If there was a sun, it never shone on him. Winter faded into Easter Week, which was winter still, with a fresh fall of snow in the high mountains.

Working so many hours of overtime meant bigger paydays, yet each week Tommy handed the money to his mother without counting it. He had no use for it. At night he trudged home, shoulders and back aching, interested in nothing except a bath, supper, and the latest edition of the Denver Post. He read that the Germans had pushed back the British and French at a town in Belgium called Ypres. How the devil did you pronounce a word like Ypres? he wondered. Why-press? Yippers? Eugenie would know. Anyway, according to the paper, at Ypres the Germans were using a deadly new weapon called chlorine gas against the British and French troops. As soon as they breathed the gas, the paper said, the soldiers died and turned black.

Tommy shuddered. Maybe some things were worse than being eighteen years old and shoveling coal for long hours in a mine—like being eighteen years old and dying from poison gas in a place you couldn't pronounce. At least when Tommy turned black from coal dust, it washed off.

The day after Easter he worked with Peter at the dark end of a tunnel that led to a seam nearly mined out. More and more Peter had trained Tommy to do the job of a real miner, not just a laborer. There were certain things, though, that Peter did himself, things that could be dangerous if done incorrectly, like tapping the roof of the seam with the pick handle, listening closely to the sound it made to make sure the roof was solid. On that Easter Monday he let Tommy undercut the coal, which meant Tommy used a pick to take out a long slice at the bottom of the seam so the coal would break clean when the dynamite blew it off.

"You can drill the hole too, if you want," Peter told him.

Using the long pole with a drill at the end, Tommy reamed deep into the coal seam, then scraped out the dust from the hole he'd made. Meanwhile, Peter had rolled a piece of newspaper around a two-inch-thick rod to make a cylinder. While Tommy finished the hole, Peter bent one end of the paper tube to close it tight and then pulled out the rod. Covering the bottom of the cylinder with black powder he poured from a keg, Peter put in a long fuse, filled the tube the rest of the way with more black powder, and tamped this handmade stick of dynamite into the hole Tommy had drilled.

"All right, get out of the way. I'm going to light it," Peter said.

It was the same routine they followed every day: undercut the seam, fill a paper tube with black powder and a fuse, tamp it into the drill hole, and light the fuse. Blasting was always done at the end of the shift so that the coal dust could clear away by the following morning.

The blast seemed ordinary—it knocked maybe half a ton of coal off the walls of the seam and down to the tunnel floor. Suddenly Tommy heard a sound that scared him—a sharp crack unlike the normal crash of falling coal, followed by a roar. Everything went dark except for the carbide lamp on Tommy's miner's cap. The tunnel's electric lights had gone out.

"What happened?" he yelled, but he knew. A rockfall! Part of the roof had broken loose and collapsed, filling the tunnel with tons of heavy sandstone from the ground above the coal seam.

At first he couldn't tell how bad it was, because dust from the coal blast had already filled the tunnel before the rockfall sent more dust billowing all around. He choked and gasped for breath. The dim light from his miner's cap wasn't anywhere near powerful enough to penetrate the dust. "Peter, are all you all right?" he shouted, but there was no answer.

"Peter, where are you?"

In the silence he could hear smaller rocks and pebbles still dropping, settling onto the floor of the tunnel.

"Peter! Can you hear me?"

After the coal dust and rock dust began to settle, he could see Peter—or the part of him that wasn't buried. "Peter," he yelled, "talk to me!"

No response. From the chest down Peter lay buried under huge chunks of rock. Was he dead? Crying, "God, God, God, God, God," Tommy began pulling away the chunks of rock from Peter's chest because he knew a weight like that could crush a man's lungs. Black Edo rushed up then, and both of them frantically yanked away as many rocks as they could lift with their bare hands, pulling them off Peter's chest first because the massive chunks of debris on his legs were too huge to worry about until later. Lungs and heart first—that mattered most.

Bending close to check whether any breath was coming from Peter's open lips, Tommy cried, "Peter, can you hear me?" Still no answer, but at least Peter was breathing, although so shallowly it frightened Tommy into furious action.

To free Peter, he grabbed a pick and swung it against the rocks pinning Peter's legs. The only way to remove slabs that size was to break them up. Starting with the massive chunks heaped on Peter's left leg, knowing he had to be careful not to impale Peter with the point of the pick, Tommy swung with all his strength again and again until the huge slabs began to crack and crumble. "I help you," Edo said, but Tommy shouted, "No, I'll do this. You go for the doctor. And send in an empty coal car so we can get him out."

In a frenzy Tommy smashed rocks with his pick until he was able to clear enough debris to free the lower part of Peter's body. Peter's left leg lay twisted, flattened, and so bloody that Tommy couldn't bear to look at it. He told himself it might not seem as bad under better light. But by then other miners had arrived, carrying carbide lanterns, and when they got a look at Peter's mangled leg, they shook their heads.

The company doctor hurried toward them. Taking one brief glance, he told them, "We've got to bring him out fast and get him to the hospital." Once the men had loaded Peter into one of the coal cars, they pushed and pulled together to roll it to the mine portal, where the company ambulance was waiting.

Copyright © 2001 by Gloria Skurzynski

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >