At the Heart of History

By Jim Buck, Era Reporter

David Poyer’s latest novel, “Thunder on the Mountain,” has been getting good reviews,  even from people who don’t recognize that the cold, hard, oil-covered terrain he writes about is a fictionalized version of McKean County.

This novel, the fourth in a series dealing with events in Hemlock County, Pa., transports readers into the middle of a refinery strike in the winter of 1936. Those familiar with the previous books in the Hemlock County series will recognize a number of characters in “Thunder on the Mountain” – W.T. Halvorsen, a 20-year-old well shooter and amateur boxer; Jennie Washko, Halvorsen’s sweetheart; and Dan Thunner, the owner of Thunder Oil and the richest man in Petroleum City.

To bring these chapters alive, Poyer sought out several local residents who could tell him first hand what life was like in this area during the 1930s.

One of those people was Tommy Darcy Cardamone.

Walking into Cardamone’s barber shop on Mechanic Street is like stepping into a time machine. The walls are covered with pictures showing young men in uniform prepared to enter the fighting in World War II, a variety of boxers from the 1930s including Cardamone himself, and a few shots taken inside the Silver Slipper, the nightclub Cardamone ran in the ‘40s.

“Anybody who knows Tommy Darcy knows he had a great deal of input into the book,” Poyer said.

Poyer also talked with John Cummiskey, a walking encyclopedia of information about professional and amateur boxing in this area. It’s no coincidence then that the novel contains a character named Master John Cummiskey, who’s introduced to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as “the boy who swallowed the harmonica.”

For in-depth knowledge of the oil industry, Poyer picked the brain of Jim Bryner, president of the Penn Brad Oil Museum.

In the first chapter of the book, Poyer describes the way Halvorsen goes about his job as a well shooter for the “Bryner Torpedo Co.” The ease with which Poyer writes about this arcane occupation and about other aspects of the oil industry won praise from reviewers.

Poyer had other sources as well.

For the history of the labor movement during the 1930s, Poyer said he read through the transcripts of the LaFolette Commission hearings, during which congressmen listened to testimony about the illegal methods companies were using to break strikes and crush unions.

Among the early advocates of union organization was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who built her reputation by organizing the workers at several textile mills in the South.
Doris Gurley Golden, one of the central characters in “Thunder on the Mountain,”is a composite character, combining aspects of Flynn and an organizer named Fanny Sellins, who was killed by company thugs during a strike in Monessen, Poyer said.
One of the biggest challenges Poyer faced was trying to recapture the idioms and other figures of speech that would give an authentic flavor to the dialogue in the book.

To get the dialogue right, Poyer said he turned to old newspapers from the ’30s and read the comic pages, where characters spoke using everyday speech patterns.
He also consulted the humor section of vintage issues of the Pennsylvania National Guard Magazine as well as one or two living people who seemed to have total recall of things that were said in the 1930s.

If it’s beginning to sound like Poyer has spent years researching “Thunder on the Mountain,” that’s because he did.

Back in 1981, when Poyer began writing “The Dead of Winter” – the first in the Hemlock County series – he knew he would eventually trace the lives of his main characters back to the 1930s.

Ever since then he’s been  filling notebooks with information he could use for the book.

In fact, Poyer said his desire to write about that period in history stems from his childhood, when he would listen to his grandmother talking with her friends about what it took to make ends meet during the Great Depression.

Although the audience for the books in the Hemlock County series is smaller than for books in the other two series he writes (one centered on the exploits of a U.S. Navy man and the other on an underwater salvage operator), Poyer said he feels compelled to extend the series.

“I have nursed this series along,” Poyer said. “This is an area I care about and people I care about. It makes me appreciate the audience I have even more.”

“I wish I could have done even better for you,” Poyer told an audience following a recent reading at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.

Copies of “Thunder on the Mountain” can be purchased at Archer’s; Poppy’s Video, Music, & Books; and Tina’s Cards send Gifts.

Other titles in the Hemlock County series – “The Dead of Winter,” “Winter in the Heart,” and “As the Wolf Loves Winter” – are available from local libraries and the Bradford Landmark Society as well as the above-mentioned book stores. 

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