The Breaker Boys


Book: The Breaker Boys

Author: Pat Hughes 

Jacket Illustrator: Michael Hays

Publisher: Backshore Books, republished 2014

ISBN-13: 978-0374309565 Hardcover

ISBN-10: 0374309566 Hardcover

ISBN-13: 978-0615881676 Paperback

ISBN-10: 061588167X Paperback

Related website(s): (publisher)

Language level: 3 (almost 4)

(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)

Recommended reading level: Said to be ages 8 – 12; I say 13 and up

Rating: **** 4 stars

(5 stars=EXCELLENT; 4 stars=GOOD; 3 stars=FAIR; 2 stars=POOR; 1 star=VERY POOR; no stars=NOT RECOMMENDED)

Category: Historical fiction

Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker

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     Hughes, Pat.  The Breaker Boys (Published in 2004 by Farrar Straus and Giroux, 19 Union Square West, New York City, NY  10003).  It is the spring of 1897, and twelve year old Nathan (Nate) Tanner, the son of a wealthy coal mine operator in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is kicked out Brock boarding school in New Jersey and sent home to his father Thomas, step-mother Anna, older brothers Tom and Fred, older sister Tory, younger sisters Millie and Winnie, and little half-brothers Martin and James, along with a house full of servants such as driver Patrick, cook Mary, groundskeeper Harry, governess Lucy, and maid Fiona.  Nate has everything a kid could want or need except a friend. He is to have morning sessions all summer with tutor Mr. Hawthorne, but will be free in the afternoons, so to avoid his family, Nate disappears on his bicycle every day.  In this way he meets the breaker boys, who do dangerous, dirty work in his father’s mines, separating coal from debris in a filthy, dark building called a breaker.

     Nate comes to admire these Polish immigrants, especially Johnny Bartelak, and longs to become his friend.   But the only way is for Nate to hide that he is the boss’s son. Unaware of Nate’s real identity, Johnny invites him to play baseball with the breaker boys. As the summer of 1897 progresses, Nate finds himself piling lie on top of lie to keep his identity secret from Johnny, and the friendship secret from his family.  But as Nate and Johnny’s friendship marches toward the moment of truth, Nate discovers that the mine workers are plotting a strike, while back at home, he learns of his family’s fears about the future.  What should Nate do?  Will he warn his family?   Or does he decide to protect his friend?  The Breaker Boys does a good job of exploring both sides of a painful but timeless issue through sympathetic portrayals of both immigrant laborers and the coal-mine owners who employed them. 

     There are references to drinking whiskey and beer, smoking cigarettes, and spitting tobacco juice.  Also, a fairly sizeable amount of bad language occurs.   It is somewhat disconcerting to read about eleven and twelve year old boys hurling the “d” and “h” words around at each other.  And the name of God is taken in vain through various exclamatory constructions.  The book is said to be for ages 8-12, but I would say that unless one wants his preteens encouraged to spout off profanities, ages 13 and up would be better.  At the same time, there is a good story here.  While Nate, his family, and his friends are all fictional, an author’s note discusses the historical events on which this novel is based.  Readers will learn a lot about coal production and the everyday life of both workers and owners.

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