Out of This Furnace (1941)

by Thomas Bell

Featuring Eastern European immigrant laborers in the steel mills around Pittsburgh, Out of This Furnace was a regional bestseller that found a wider audience in college classes, where it enlightens students about newly industrialized America, the immigrant labor it exploited, and the rise of trade unions.

Author Thomas Bell, who was born Thomas Belejcak in the mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, based the novel on his own Slovak ancestors’ experience. The book spans three generations, beginning with Djuro Kracha, who takes one of the few jobs available to uneducated immigrants in the 1880s: working in a steel mill where the furnaces sometimes exploded. Djuro’s daughter Mary, the main character in the second section, loses her idealistic husband in an industrial accident and dies of tuberculosis herself a few years later. The last section, featuring Mary’s oldest child, Dobie Dobrejcak, a third-generation steelworker, ends on a triumphant note as Dobie and his compatriots succeed in unionizing the industry in the 1930s.

People of Slovak heritage shouldn’t look to Out of This Furnace to learn about ancestral customs. This is not a nostalgic novel, and it’s more focused on the mill than than on domestic life. Its ethnic pride lies in its portrayal of a hard-working, courageous people who survived and advanced by their own sweat. This novel has broad appeal to anyone whose impoverished ancestors came to the United States a century or so ago seeking a better life and had to toil at grueling, life-threatening jobs for long hours and little pay while being belittled with epithets like “hunkies” by old-line Americans. For the descendants of those immigrants who are comfortable in the middle class, this book is a reminder of the sacrifice that was required to secure our position there.


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