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Breaker at Dawn
Class set order code: 7055S
Paddy O’Grady is a twelve-year-old boy working in a coal mine in the year 1900. Most of the mining families are poor immigrants, and the work is dangerous. One man is trying to bring the various ethnic groups together to advocate for better working conditions. Paddy agrees that change is needed, but he longs to be a miner like his father. His father, however, has other ideas about the future.
This is a novel about the American coal industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is told from the point of view of Paddy O’Grady, a twelve-year-old boy working in a Pennsylvania mine in the breaker, where boys under the age of fourteen sorted through rapidly-moving streams of coal, picking out rocks and shale from the anthracite that was being conveyed to waiting railcars.
Miners and their families came from all over the world, including Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and Italy. The mine owners encouraged ethnic rivalries to keep the workers segregated and relatively powerless, and the mining towns were divided by ethnicity. But the mining families had in common that they were all poor, and Paddy was not unusual in going to work in the breaker at the age of eight. The law said that children under twelve were not allowed to work, but the O’Grady family desperately needed the income Paddy could bring in, and documents could be manufactured as needed.
The boys who survived the twelve-hour days in the breaker could go down into the mines and earn more money when they turned fourteen, but the work was dangerous. Men lost their lives, whether suddenly in events such as cave-ins or slowly as a result of years of breathing in the toxic coal dust. As long as the coal companies could keep the workers fragmented, conditions would never change, but one man was encouraging the various factions to work together, united in purpose if not in language or heritage. Paddy was excited by the prospect of change, and yet he longed to be a miner like his father, for he couldn’t imagine any other future. His father, however, could, and in the end, though banding together for the good of all was the right thing in one moment, the O’Grady family still had a hard decision to make on their own.
This is a gripping novel—not just for young people but for readers of all ages who appreciate a masterful story about a time in the not-so-distant past when circumstances were quite different but human grit and resolve were very much the same.