Thomas Bell, the author of Out of This Furnace, grew up in the steel mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Bell’s novel illustrates the difficult hardships his family overcame during the nineteenth century in a parallel he creates within the story. It is evident that during the late nineteenth century, many European immigrants made their way to America in hopes of building a greater life and accomplishing great things in order to pave the way for the generations to follow. During the late nineteenth century, the United States was in an era of industrial revolution and had many job opportunities which fit the needs of the immigrants.
However; even with an opportunity that seemed great life would not be so easy. Bell’s novel illustrates five generations of a family of Hungarian immigrants and writes about their journey, lifestyle, hardships and what it all meant in the end and it narrated through the main characters of the following generations, in particular, George Kracha, Mike Dobrejcak, Mary Dobrejcak, and Dobie Dobrejcak. The novel begins with George’s journey to America at the age of 21 with only 50 cents in his pocket, he set out to opportune land leaving behind his family in order to create a life of comfort and happiness for the future before sending out for his wife to join him. Just as George stated in the novel, he felt he could be a millionaire with what life in the United States would give him (Bell). This shows the hope not only George, but many like him had and one of the reasons many immigrants made their way to America.
On his journey, he met a woman who would become his wife many years later and shape an important part of his future in America. Upon his arrival in New York George made his way to Pennsylvania to work on the railroads until he opened his own business as a butcher. When his business failed, he turned to alcohol to drink away his sorrows. These hardships and Georges response show that while America was opportune, it was still filled with many hardships. The focus of the novel shifts to Mike Dobrejcak, Georges son in-law who was married to his daughter Mary.
Mike’s goals parallel with Georges as he also hopes to have more in life and he sets out to attain those goals. He begins by getting an education in order to learn English and works hard to become a true American (Bell 120). Mike was a character who tried to problem solve rather than sit back and wallow. He left a strong impression and a positive example of a loving husband and father for his children to follow after his unfortunate death at the steel mill. The novel briefly turns it focus on Mary and her daughter after her husband’s death before the final part of the shift to their son, Johnny who goes by Dobie (250). After the death of his mother and sister, Dobie is the protagonist of the final part of the novel.
During part four of Out of This Furnace, the Great Depression is taking place. When Dobie completed his apprenticeship at the steel mill he moved to Detroit and worked for five years before he landed his first job at the Chrysler plant (263). He experienced some hardships and cuts on wages. Eventually, Dobie gets involved in the union again and becomes an activist encouraging other workers to join. The novel ends illustrating Dobie living the American dream, he followed his aspirations, became successful, and earned his right to be called an American (412).
Life in American for immigrants was difficult as they faced many challenges. Upon Kracha’s arrival to America it was evident that making ends meet would prove to be a challenge. Leading a life of poverty, he worked dangerously long days for very little pay that served to be just enough for food for his family., immigrants worked the most for the least amount of pay. In the novel Bell writes how on the railroads, Kracha was forced to work all day with no rest which posed risk to the worker’s health. The machinery in steel mills was dangerous and many men lost their lives in that industry. For example, when Dubik was severely burned by the furnace of the mill and passed away shortly after (53), this shows the dangerous conditions the men were put to work in.
In addition to the working conditions, immigrants faced racial discrimination which proved to be another obstacle to face. The white, wealthy capitalists of the industries and the immigrants did not have a good relationship and often times strikes broke out which lead to death. Mill owners did not treat their Slovakian employees well and gave them a low ranking despite their hard work. For example, when Mike is killed in an accident, the mill company only gave a small amount in compensation (209).
Not only were the working conditions difficult, but living conditions were also poor. As a result of low wages, immigrants just barely had enough finances to do anything besides sleep, eat and work. Many immigrant workers did not have any political freedom or even a voice within their company. Bell published this novel to as a parallel to many personal experiences as a portrayal of the steel mills based on a true history. Within his novel he illustrates the conditions under which the immigrant live and work. The novel allows readers to better understand the era in economic, industrial and racial ways.
It encapsulates the history in a creative way and is interesting to readers while providing them with a tool for greater knowledge. The transformation that the characters within each generation undergo through facing their problems, and finally achieving their dreams tells the story that many immigrant families faced in their journey to unfamiliar land full of new opportunities. Reading Bells novel about the obstacles that the immigrants overcame moved me in a way I did not expect. With a heritage that contains Slovakian down the line, the details of the story that portray what many immigrants faced are ones I never gave much thought to before. I have had the opportunity to live a wonderful life and after reading the book I realized how much I truly take for granted.
The book felt like a chance to hear the stories of distant relatives that may have been, one I never had the chance to know. It gave me a look into the history of the late nineteenth century and a greater understanding about the kind of life that workers led and how they survived in order to obtain their dreams of a better life and future for their families.