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Bucket of Blood: The Ragman’s War
ISBN: 059530155x

By R. S. Sukle
Review by: Barbara Bamberger Scott

12/01/04

R. S. Sukle has a family history that impelled her to write this book, an account of unrest and murder in the Pennsylvania coalfields in the 1920s. Her passion for the subject is obvious, and she has presented the story in an unusual format, beginning each chapter with actual news articles from the time and region.

She has constructed both a mystery story germane to her family background, and a saga that sweeps across the landscape of the union struggles and the perennial wars between the bosses and the workers. This warfare was felt perhaps more keenly in the coal mines than anywhere else. Coal mining is a frightening, soul-deadening occupation, and as it is generally carried out, its ill effects are community-wide. Generally brought in from other countries, hampered by language barriers and lack of legal recourse, coal miners were at the bottom of the heap. Men and their wives and children were under daily threat from flooding, fires, collapses and the grind of poverty. The air they breathed, the water they drank, was black with coal dust, they lived in substandard housing, were subject to illness engendered by cold and lack of hygiene and were kept in debt by the bosses who lived high on the hill, in mansions with well kempt lawns.

Into this grim scenario comes Ragman, a World War I veteran drawn to the struggle by kin and his own private sorrows. Posed against him is the sadist Bucholtz, who takes pleasure in asserting his power over his inferiors, and especially over women. Bucholtz is a special operative for the Coal and Iron Police, sworn to keep the miners down, as Ragman is devoted to raising them up.

Striking was the only strategy available to these men and their families, and the consequences of resistance could be deadly. Everyone had to have total commitment, even lovers and children, or there could be no solidarity.

“Bucket of Blood” was the name given to coal towns where violence had occurred in defense of collectivism. Russellton (where the author was raised) was one such place. Sukle’s book is well researched and her dialogue rings true to the accent and the feeling of those fraught times. It is a praiseworthy effort and one expects to see more of Sukle as a writer/historian.

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