Book Spotlight: BLUE COLLARS by Catherine McLaughlin

Blue Collars by Catherine McLaughlin
ISBN: 9870932027252 (paperback)
Publisher: Spinner Publications
Release Date: May 2018

Some secrets are unforgivable.

An American mill city. A loomfixer’s daughter.

An imperfect weave of family love, betrayal, and redemption.

Young Finn Kilroy seems on the surface to enjoy an idyllic carefree life in a typical New England mill city. However, a dark secret looms inside the tenement walls of this 1960s blue-collar family.

A compelling story about growing up during the late 1950s and 1960s in a New Bedford, Massachusetts working-class family, Blue Collars details the triumphs and tragedies of the Kilroy family. Told through the eyes of young Fiona “Finn” Kilroy, whose father worked as a loom fixer at the Berkshire Hathaway textile mill along the city’s waterfront, her story unfolds in the city’s South End, a neighborhood where Portuguese, Irish, French, and Cape Verdean immigrant families lived side-by-side in mostly three-decker tenement houses typical of many New England cities.

Surrounded by the love of a caring, extended family, Finn’s life seems, on the surface, to be carefree and idyllic, but a terrible secret haunts her childhood. This is the story of a young girl’s endurance in the face of betrayal and her brave efforts to overcome the shocks that rock her world. Finn’s efforts to present a normal face breaks the reader’s heart. Her story infuriates – even as her determination to stay strong and survive will inspire every reader.

From Finn’s tumultuous childhood to her coming of age, we experience her family’s life of love, abuse, and heartache amidst a backdrop of historical events that shaped this American industrial city—financial upheaval and textile strikes.

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Read an excerpt

“Coffee. I need coffee,” Molly said.

“I’ll get it,” I said eagerly.

“Ma, I can’t stand getting up at the crack of dawn for these swimming lessons. I’m tired all day.”

“Go to bed earlier, then,” Ma said.

Molly shot her a look but said nothing.

“Besides,” Ma said, “it’s only for a few more weeks.”

I poured the cold coffee, adding sugar and evaporated milk, and handed Molly her mug. Skippy wandered in from the parlor, where he’d been playing happily, stacking wooden alphabet blocks on top of the set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias that he’d emptied from the bookcase.

“Can I play?” Skippy asked.

“No, you’re too little,” I said.

“I want to play,” he repeated.

“You can play when you’re older.”

Ma could see a tantrum coming.

“Come on, Skippy. I’ll read you a story,” she said. Skippy ran to the parlor bookcase and returned with an ancient-looking, fat book.

“Which story?” Ma said.

“‘Cruel Paul,'” Skippy said and snuggled in the chair close to Ma’s ample bosom.

“Oh my God, not that one,” Molly said. “It’s a wonder it doesn’t give little Oedipus nightmares.”

Aunt Joan looked over my mother’s shoulder. “Which one is that?” Aunt Joan asked.

“Who’s Eddy Puss?” I wanted to know.

“It’s the one where this kid named Paul is cruel to animals, pulls off the wings of flies, crushes ants, does all sorts of horrible things, and one day the animals revolt and attack him. They pluck out his eyes and tongue and hair and everything,” Molly said. “It’s disgusting, and it’s illustrated! The whole book’s full of stories like that.”

“That’s awful,” Aunt Joan said, but she was laughing. “I’m going back to the salt mines. Dishes.”

“Who’s Eddy Puss?” I asked again.

“Me too,” Ma said. “I’ve already heated the water four times, and I can’t seem to get to them.”

“Read,” Skippy said.

“Who’s Eddy—”

“Play,” Molly said.

I rolled the dice, deciding to ask again later.

“‘Once upon a time, there was a boy by the name of Cruel Paul,'” Ma began.

Aunt Joan left. She’d be back. She was in and out of our tenement a half-dozen times a day.

Aunt Joan was slender and about the same height as her husband, Callan (“God made ’em, God matched ’em,” Granny said). She had an oval face and eyes I had trouble reading. Her dark hair was streaked with gray. Callan was short and powerfully built, with pale skin and a military crew cut. His eyes were brown and cold. Their identical twins were twelve, my brother Drew’s age. Where Pat was quiet and thoughtful and rather sweet, Little Cal was a hellion. Each twin had black hair in a crew cut, which their father gave them, brown eyes and lithe bodies.

I was afraid of my aunt. She took it upon herself to discipline us as if we were her own children, which I resented mightily. She would come upstairs every morning with her coffee to visit with Ma. They would exchange aches and pains and whatever bad news was going around (Dad used to mutter that they sounded like the soap opera As the World Turns). If she came up at night, and I was in bed trying to sing myself to sleep, she came to my door and yelled, “Stop all that noise in there! Turn your face to the wall and go to sleep!” Then she’d close my door tight, which I hated, for it left me in total darkness. I have often wondered why Ma let her interfere like that.

If Aunt Joan scared me, her husband terrified me. He lost his scattershot temper easily and beat his kids, and I was always afraid he’d do the same to us. In fact, he was used as the household threat: “Stop [whatever we were doing] or I’ll call Uncle Callan!” He was the bogeyman. He’d served in the Army and was stationed in France during World War II. Now he had a civil service job, working at city hall, which paid pretty well compared to blue-collar mill jobs. He also took care of most of the repairs needing to be done around the house—painting, shingling, seeding the “lawn,” pouring cement, building a fence or a garbage coop. He was multi-talented in these areas, where Dad was simply not interested in being the handyman. Maybe he got too much of that at work. At home, Dad’s toolbox consisted of a hammer, a couple of rusted screwdrivers, several bent nails, some random wrenches, and umpteen unidentifiable broken and abandoned things. Uncle Callan had an entire workshop in the cellar, including a workbench with a vise attached, saws, power tools, all sorts of equipment Dad didn’t want anything to do with in his off-work hours. So even if Uncle Callan was the family bogeyman, having him around had some benefits. For me, though, he was more than just the threat of a bogeyman. He was a predator. And for most of my childhood, I was his prey.

Excerpt from Blue Collars by Catherine McLaughlin. 
Copyright © 2018 by Catherine McLaughlin. 
Reproduced with permission from author/publisher. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Author and artist, Catherine McLaughlin grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She received her undergraduate degree from Southeastern Massachusetts University, now the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and her graduate degrees from the University College Dublin and Bowling Green State University. As a graduate student at Bowling Green, Catherine was assigned to be the assistant of writer-in-residence James Baldwin, author of The Fire Next Time. Baldwin mentored McLaughlin and they developed a friendship that lasted the last ten years of his life. Catherine taught English and writing for 40 years at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Framingham State University. In 2015 she published a book of her poetry, Under a Circus Moon. Now retired, McLaughlin is professor emerita of Framingham State University, she lives in Dartmouth, Massachusetts with her two cats.

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