Once upon a time in tiny, rural Myscowa, Lukasz Musial competes in feats
of strength against his lifelong nemesis to win passage to America. He
leaves behind grinding poverty and despair, to seek the clear blue
skies, and better life he sees on a postcard. Settled in Donora’s Polish
community, Lukasz secures a coveted job in the wire mill, and is
matched to marry Donora’s very own Polish princess. Life is set on
course. The American Dream is nearly his.
Mary Lancos is no princess. A tall, athletic girl who loves the water,
she spends her days keeping house for families in town, digging coal out
of a backyard seam and rowing her father across the Monongahela River
for work. Mary is dependable, tenacious, and always ready to help when
someone needs her. She dreams of a gas-heated home, a bedroom for each
of her future children, and good meals on the table each night. To help
make that happen Mary attends local dances, waiting for the few men who
are taller than her to ask her to dance, hoping one of them is right for
An unexpected Christmas Eve visitor brings bad luck, and Lukasz’s
world crumbles. Meanwhile, tension grows at the Lancos home when money
is short and Mary’s dreams clash with her parents’ old world
expectations. Just when Mary and Lukasz are at their lowest, they find
themselves under an odd pink moonlit sky and Lukasz rescues Mary from a
fall into frigid river water. The attraction between them is sudden and
consuming, turning the pair onto an unexpected path. With mounting
disapproval from Mary’s parents, and increased pressure on Lukasz, they
must decide if love is enough to risk losing everything else that
The Strongman and the Mermaid is a historical novel that begins in 1910. Lukasz Musial lives in Poland, but wants to immigrate to America. Mary Lancos lives in Donora, Pennsylvania. Her family is struggling and she has left school to work as a maid. This is the story of how these two surprisingly similar people meet and come together.
First, I have to say this book has an absolutely beautiful, evocative cover. I was interested to read it initially because of the cover art and because it sounded like an unusual historical novel - part family saga, part love story, part fairytale.
This is a big book -- 565 pages. It moves at a leisurely pace. However, I could not put it down. I stayed up reading until 2:00 AM, then 1:00 AM the next night because the author has a gift of creating characters who I cared about.
The novel begins with Lukasz in Poland, and Mary in Pennsylvania. Lukasz loses his chance at a ticket to America, but then improbably wins a ticket after all. That changes his life, and the life of Mary as well. I really became involved in the book more when the characters were both in Pennsylvania; that is when the book really seemed to begin for me. They meet casually but are involved in their own lives. Lukasz is set up with a beautiful Polish girl and Mary is interested n a young man from a wealthy family.
I loved the fairy tale quality of this storytelling. Lukasz is a strongman, not big but very powerful. He is gentle, though, and has an artist's eye for creating beautiful figures of metal and wire. At night he dreams about a legendary mermaid. Mary longs to change her life, like Cinderella in the fairy tale. One magical night a pink moon changes everything for them both.
The writing in this book - most especially the descriptions - is absolutely lovely. I loved all the details of Catholic holidays and rituals, of food and baking (although I sometimes wished for recipes to try some of the dishes!), and day to day descriptions. For instance, there is a ritual where young single women in the community make unique flower wreaths that they wear. Then they toss them in the river and suitors dive in for the wreaths. There was such an evocative image of the wreaths bobbing in the river.
And when Lukasz spies the pink moon:
"He looked upward. A full moon, pink and blazing through the clouds, shocked him. Its rays reflected off the newly fallen snow as if the heavens had laid down a winter blanket over the dark, barren ground. Blue light reflected off the snow, a pink haze circled the moon, and he felt as if he'd been dropped off into another world" (p. 423).
The framework of the novel is a very elderly man named Patryk in the present day. He shares a special book with his daughter and grandson. It is a book about "mermaids, red birds, baseball gloves, and bats, circus animals and performers, and cemetery headstones. of all things" (p. 9). Although I found these characters very likable, they took me out of the action of 1910 in a way that distracted me a bit. I was eager to return to the original story.
The name of Stan Musial is mentioned several times in the book. I will admit that I'm not a sports fan and was not familiar with him until I looked him up. He was a famous baseball player and it appears this novel was inspired by his family's story. That makes the story even more interesting!
There will be another book in this series about Stan Musial, and I look forward to revisiting these characters and this world again. I recommend The Strongman and the Mermaid for fans of historical fiction, love stories, family sagas. It is a totally unique book and I found it a very rewarding read. I think you will too.
Bestselling author, Kathleen Shoop, holds a PhD in reading education and
has more than 20 years of experience in the classroom. She writes
historical fiction, women’s fiction and romance. Shoop’s novels have
garnered various awards in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, Eric
Hoffer Book Awards, Indie Excellence Awards, Next Generation Indie Book
Awards and the San Francisco Book Festival. Kathleen has been featured
in USA Today and the Writer’s Guide to 2013. Her work has appeared in
The Tribune-Review, four Chicken Soup for the Soul books and Pittsburgh
Parent magazine. She lives in Oakmont, Pennsylvania with her husband and
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Strongman and Mermaid