Survival and Redemption in Scranton

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night: A Novel, by Barbara J. Taylor, (Akashic Books), 320 Pages

Barbara J. Taylor’s Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night (released at the start of this month) is an ambitious novel, one that attempts to capture a time period and a region, as well as a cast of characters. The period is the nineteen-teens; the region Pennsylvania’s coal mining towns, specifically Scranton; the characters are a family broken by the loss of a child, the town itself, and Grief.

On July 4, 1923, eight-year-old Violet Morgan is quarreling with her older sister, Daisy, their pinches and shoves knock over their mother who is about to put a pie in the oven, and their father yells at them to go outside. On the front porch the two girls find the sparklers their father has hidden for a celebration that evening. The girls decide to light one, and Daisy’s dress goes up in flames. Three days later, Daisy is dead.

There’s plenty of guilt and pain to go around. Grace, the girls’ mother, mourns the loss of her favorite, in her worst moments blaming Violet for the tragedy. Father Owen blames himself for sending the girls outside and for buying the sparklers. Poor Violet blames herself not just for her sister’s death, but for all the misfortunes that befall her family and her best friend.

The novel has two remaining characters, who deserve introduction. First, the town itself, which narrates occasional chapters in a collective voice, passing on gossip and speculation. The final character is Grief, who Grace has been seeing and conversing with for years as one tragedy after another has struck her family. He’s a pernicious companion, always available, always working to grind down any emerging sense of hope.

To this mix add Billy Sunday, ex-baseball player and the most well-known evangelist of the early Twentieth Century. He’s planning a Scranton crusade, hoping to drive out cards, dancing, and alcohol—and to save a few thousand souls in the process.

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is thick with action and emotion, making it a hard-to-put-down read. Taylor knows how to end a chapter so that the reader feels compelled to continue for “just one more.” In less capable hands, this narrative would turn into melodrama. Taylor walks that fine edge, but the vividness of the characters she portrays and the structural originality of the novel prevent her from crossing over.

This book is a great read for anyone trying to understand the contradictions of the early Twentieth Century, the combination of Bible thumping and union busting, but that isn’t the only reason to read this book: it’s just good fiction of the sort one want this time of year, offering both action and well-delineated characters.