Out of This Furnace Essay

Micah Paulsen

History 147


Book Report #2

Out of This Furnace

Out of This Furnace was written by Thomas Bell in 1941, describing the lives/struggles

of three generations of Slovak, but more specifically, Hungarian immigrant workers in the

United States steel mills. The novel has four parts, each following one main character from three

generations of this said Slovak family: Kracha, Mike Dobrejcak, Mary, and Dobie. Bell begins

the story with the part one, following George Kracha. He has just arrived in America by going

from Budapest, then to Bremen, and finally ended in New York.

He was going to northeastern

Pennsylvania where his brother-in-law was working in a railroad section gang. It talks about how

he was given specific instructions to find the New Jersey ferry and purchase a train ticket, and

was scarred with the tales of murders, beatings, and thefts on Slovak immigrants the first day

they arrived in America. Bell then speaks to what Kracha has left behind, which includes: His

wife, his sister, his widowed mother and what he thought he was leaving behind, endless poverty

(Bell 3-4). He takes a job at the Braddock steel mill in Pennsylvania and works there, receiving

harsh long labor with minimum and below wages for such works. After a couple years with his

job in the mill, he opens up a butcher shop where he becomes seemingly comfortable with his

finances. But shortly, he is overwhelmed with debts in his business that he cannot sell, and since

the exposure of his affair and committed adultery he loses customers as their sign of disapproval.

Next, is Mike Dobrejcak, an immigrant also from Slovakia who travelled to the U.S. at only 14.

He worked his life in the steel mills where he, as well as the other immigrant workers were

treated with awful conditions unimaginable to endure.Mike was different from other immigrants

who came to the U.S. because he learned to speak english and actually ended up becoming a

U.S. citizen. Mike was living at Dorta’s and it is there that he meets Mary, one of Kracha’s

daughters, where he later married her and has several kids with her. Due to his higher education,

Mike is left with a neverending want for a better life for him and his family, “Nobody can help

us but ourselves, and if anything is to be done we will have to do it ourselves. That’s what I

learned. God pity me, sometimes I wish I could have gone along without learning it, gone on

talking and making plans but inside me feeling that maybe it wasn’t really true and if it was I was

somehow excepted. Inside me hoping that somehow things would change by themselves or that

other people would do what was necessary and I’d never have to risk the little I have” (Bell 194).

Mike and Mary struggled to make the money needed to support them, so they ended up taking in

people and feeding them as well as giving shelter, but when Mary was pregnant with their fourth

child she became very sick. This forced them to stop taking in these people, making it even

harder to make the money they needed to support four kids and themselves. To make the matters

worse, Mike, their source of all income, was killed in an explosion at the mill, leaving Mary with

four kids and nobody to help her, “He let out his breath in a shuddering sigh, wondering why

God had chosen him to do this dreadful thing to her, Then he put out his hand to touch her

shoulder, to wake her and tell her that Mike was dead” (Bell 208). Next, is Mary, after the

accident she receives money from the incident happening and decides it’s best to move the

family. She is struggling to be able to financially support and take the burden left of that by

Mike, and begins to contemplate taking in boarders and/or reamarrying, despite her other ideas,

she chooses not to forego those option and allows for her father to live in their home. He helps

them out financially but is described as a drunk, and brings new challenges for Mary. In this

time, Johnny begins to work selling plastic bottles and other junk until he is 11 and then joins in

selling newspapers, looking to do all he can to support the family. To make these matters worse,

Mary falls ill and is bedridden for some weeks, when the doctor is treating her she asks,

“‘Doctor, tell me. Have I got consumption?’ He answered with an obvious reluctance. ‘Your

lungs are touched. Yes’” (Bell 235). The doctor told her she would be okay, but she never

returned to her normal self and ended up dying at 37. Johnny was forced to move in with Frank

and Alice, where he was taken care of, it was here though that he learned about worker unions

from them. He found work and when he received his first paycheck, the birth of political

correctness was birthed inside him, they took 2 dollars from him that he didn’t spend but they

labeled for purchases, “‘But that ain’t right. I worked for the money’” (Bell 246). Dobie, the next

chapter then follows young Johnny, the third generation Slovak and final focus of the book.

Johnny moved to Detroit, leaving Frank and Alice to work at the Chrysler plant in which he then

began moving around plants since it had plentiful amounts of jobs due to the said car

manufacturing. He made exceptional amounts of money and spent it like it was growing on trees,

wasting it away on material things. But one day, the tree stopped growing, the plant cut him short

on a paycheck where his interest in unions arose again, he organized his first strike and was

kicked out of the plant along with the rest of the strikers. He got married to a woman named

Julie, in which shortly after the mills passed principles and were becoming stronger and fighting

to keep control of the unions. This was when Johnny took control and joined the A.F.L or the

American Federation of Labor, “‘When are you going to do something like this in Braddock?’

‘When enough men over there sign up….’ and that was how, after fifty years, the union came

back to Braddock. As simply as that” (Bell 290) The union gained power and it unified the once

diverse agitated men, came together for one common goal which ended up leveraging them on

the power of the mills.

The industrial working- class life, was not an adequate lifestyle for anyone. From

underpaid, to overworking, to death, to inequality, and finally manipulation, it was not an

appealing or acceptable idea. First off, they worked full, extra long days while accepting pay cuts

because they simply needed to have an income to survive and they couldn’t be let go or let them

close the mill. Bell says early on in the book, “As time passed it became evident… his manager,

Captain Jones, did not intend to reopen the mill until the men accepted wage cut and a return to

the twelve-hour day…” (23). The mill beat the union in the matter, and the eight-hour work day

has now ceased as well as their previous pay did, after the time that they were kept from work

and lost money already. Next, it talked about how Mike had been lucky to come to America

without hearing the spiel about the free American where all men were equal, because the mills

were not treated that way, as there was much segregation and separation between the different

ones that created tension, making it hard for the union to gain leverage without unity. Which

made it all the more easier for bosses and those in power of the mills, to manipulate the workers

to things such as less wages and more hours, reducing the cost of workers but upping profit for

the company (Bell 124). They also took money from the workers as illustrated in Dobie, when

Johnny got his first paycheck and they had taken two dollars, title as “purchases,” to his

confusion he had not spent anything, so he asked someone else why they had taken his money,

proclaiming, “‘I didn’t buy anything.’” where he replied, “‘Neither did I, but they took two

bucks out of my pay just the same. It’s their graft’” (Bell 246). Aside from the relationship

between the mill and the laborers, people die in the mills. Such as Mike, the husband of Mary

who is the daughter of Kracha. He died in an explosion at age 39, leaving his family struggling

with nothing. This meant for Mary and her oldest son Johnny, doing whatever it takes to make

ends meet. This was their reality.

I believe the author wrote this novel very intentionally, to inform everyone, the general

public. But more specifically maybe the government of how they were being treated in the mills

and what was happening. The purpose though, like I said, was to inform the audience, of how

awful they were being treated, and what their life was like, the struggle they went through and

the reality behind the mask of the “American Dream.” They endured hardships and loss, illnesses

and death, pay cuts and extended hours. The people needed to be informed, as well did new

immigrants who were coming to work and live this, “American Dream.” He did what was

necessary, you can’t let something like this slip by the eyes of the sheltered. Something had to

change and this novel captivated everyone and ultimately gave reason for change.

My reaction was that of a similarity of my reaction to the autobiography of Frederick

Douglass, pure disgust. What this Slovak family went through, was not much better than slavery.

Sure they were paid, but they weren’t paid like they deserved or enough to even survive

comfortably at all. A constant struggle to keep their heads above water while holding their entire

family above them. I couldn’t imagine a world where this reality used to be true. How someone

can manipulate and treat fellow human beings, immigrants or not, like garbage so they can save

and then make more money. I’m glad such a thing was brought to the attention of the world, and

I’m even more glad that we read it, it was a well written novel and it captivated me in the stories

and endeavours of the 4 main characters. I felt the pain they felt, I could never imagine going

through so much sickness and death as they went through. Imagine, working overtime in a mill

for little to no pay, forcing your kids and wife to take in boarders and sell garbage for fractions of

money, just to be cut short by the boss or to die in an explosion; or to get sick and die that way,

it’s devastating to think about.

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