– Kirkus Reviews
A collection of short stories documents the beginning of the end of a western Pennsylvania steel town.
Furnass, Pennsylvania, runs on steel mills: “The mills were a fact of life in Furnass, any part of Furnass, the same as the hills and the river and the trees; there was always the rust-covered smoke drifting over the valley, the steam from the coke ovens billowing up like huge genies to dull the sun.” In these 13 stories, set from the early 1950s to the early ’80s, the town’s citizens live and learn in the relative comfort of the steel economy—despite persistent rumors that it might all be going away. A 12-year-old boy buys a set of toy soldiers from a military antiques shop, intrigued by the rumors that surround the store’s handsy owner. Afterward, he encounters a different sexual ritual playing out in the woods near his home: one that ends, inevitably, with territorial violence between the town’s teenage gangs. Three former high school football players—now steelworkers—reminisce about a teammate who made it out of town with a mix of admiration and resentment. A Furnass mechanic is called to work on a Porsche that has broken down on the outskirts of town, which leads to a bit of class tension with the foreign car’s owner. Snodgrass (Across the River, 2018, etc.) shows how the fault lines that exist in any society—between men and women, friends and strangers—are only exacerbated once economic anxieties begin to rear their head. In the final tale, the eponymous “Hold On,” mill closures and layoffs haunt a social occasion involving three co-workers. A restored motorcycle appears to provide a welcome distraction from the uncertainty, but it proves to be a painful metaphor for the whole thing.
The author’s measured, plainspoken prose appropriately calls to mind the dirty realism of the ’80s. “I finally give up and go home,” narrates one damaged protagonist, a burglar and drug addict. “It’s been a while since I broke in there, and when I’m hanging out at Mikey’s All-Niter and the old dolly comes in, I’m careful to stay out of sight. Somebody put another sheet of plywood over that transom, so it’s better to lay low for a while and let things cool down.” Between the stories, Snodgrass includes a series of Hemingway-esque interludes, which follow two Scottish soldiers back in 1764 as they hack their way through the forest that will one day be Furnass: a de facto foundational myth that foreshadows the struggles of the region’s subsequent inhabitants. The result is a convincing meditation on the nature of work and manhood in industrial America (for these are tales about men and their particularly male insecurities; a weakness of the book is that women generally appear only as wives, mothers, or objects of sexual desire). The author makes great use of a linked short story collection’s ability to capture a time and place, with each piece shining brighter when reflected off the others.
A finely crafted, often haunting portrait of a steel town and its men.
Full Review – Self-Publishing Review (SPR)
Brimming with rustic energy and written in an authentically American voice, Holding On by Richard Snodgrass is a surprising collection of stories that capture the rise and imminent fall of Furnass, a small American town like so many others.
In the industrial boom of the 20th century, mill towns were enjoying their heyday, driving the great machine of the nation forward. Given the perspective of time, however, modern readers know that this would be a temporary golden age, one still gasping out its death rattles to this day. Within this framework of transient prosperity and bold hope for the future, these thirteen stories are both charming and heartbreaking, imbued with a sense of impending loss.
These anecdotal stories probe deep into human nature and connection, exploring the foolishness of youth, the pain of ignorant belief systems, and the challenges of poverty. The rumors and offhand remarks of the various characters scattered in this hardy Pennsylvania town are dark harbingers of what’s to come. Some of the characters appear in multiple stories, and the puzzle pieces of this quintessentially American town slowly begin to fall into place.
Woven between these stories is the tale of two other men, Scottish soldiers from the 18th century who walked the very same fields and valleys of Pennsylvania. Like the men and women who populate Furnass in the 1980s, these wanderers are seeking their own place in a changing world, striving for happiness, or at least survival. These brief interludes of Hugh and Duncan, the Scottish Highlanders, allow time for readers to breathe – functioning as occasional palate cleansers that also happen to be delectable. Some of the longer pieces also touch on the rich history of the Scots in the area, broadswords and all, subtly linking the stories together.
Given that industrial towns like Furnass are scattered across America, each with their own proud or tragic history, this collection holds a broad appeal. In fact, certain elements seem quite timely, or timeless, such as the complexity of race relations and gentrification, the pain of unrequited love, and the need for personal evolution. The landscape of the region is as much a character as any townsperson, and Snodgrass writes with a visceral passion born from true adoration for the Northeast. The colloquial nature of the characters’ speech and the minute details Snodgrass includes makes this an immersive and engaging portrait. Fictionalized as they may be, the lives of the characters are relatable and inspiring.
The technical elements of the book are strong, with only a few moments that feel sluggish or poorly penned. Every story has its own energy, and despite centering on the same small town, there are thousands more tales that could have been told. Snodgrass has a keenly compassionate eye for human nature and an excellent ear for sincere speech. The narration is also clever and dense, painting a vivid picture for those readers eager to get lost in the past.
Exposing universal themes through an intensely intimate portrait of America, Holding On is a powerful achievement from a truly standout author.
Full Review – IndieReader
HOLDING ON, the latest in an eight-book series by author Richard Snodgrass, recounts the good, the bad, and the ugly in the two-hundred year history of a struggling mill town.
Furnass is “a typical midwestern Pennsylvania mill town,” according to Richard Snodgrass’s website. Except it exists only in The Books of Furnass, an eight-volume series chronicling the town’s history from the aftermath of the French and Indian War through the late 20th century. HOLDING ON is the latest in the series, a linked collection of stories set between 1952 and 1986.
The stories contained HOLDING ON evoke Stephen King at his most nostalgic: elaborate set pieces of some bygone era in mill-town America. They share a location but not characters, though at least some of them probably appear in other books in the series. Some stories are fully-formed; others seem like beginnings that are later abandoned. In “Flowers of the Forest,” a young boy gets an introduction to sex, then to violence, learning, perhaps, how the two can spring from the same source. “Making Do” explores how a pretty young visitor shakes up a family’s dynamic. The best of the bunch is “Larry-Berry,” for the wit of its narrator, and its light-hearted twist to the age-old problem of a troubled marriage.
The stories explore familiar themes: loneliness, confusion, coming of age, the weight of history, small-town violence. Humor arises naturally from situations, though there are some good one-liners, such as Larry-Berry’s observation “I was afraid she’d lose her balance and fall on me and make me as one-sided as a nickel.” There are a few questionable decisions. Readers may be confused by the similarly named Bob Binder and Bob Bodner. And nobody in western Pennsylvania would call his mother “mum.” Between stories are italicized interludes of a pair of explorers in 1764, when the area was overgrown and unsettled. These vignettes add little to HOLDING ON, which without them would be an heir to Winesburg, Ohio. With them, it feels like an MFA thesis. Yet the time period marks the beginning of Snodgrass’s larger story, which would surely suffer from these episodes’ exclusion.
IR Verdict: Witty and poignant, and occasionally ribald, HOLDING ON is a worthy addition to the Snodgrass’s epic tale of a town in America’s heartland.