Pennsylvania Stories – Well Told by William Ecenbarger

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Pennsylvania Stories – Well Told
by William Ecenbarger
Temple University Press, 244 pp., cloth $25

Ecenbarger has earned well-deserved praise and admiration for his work as a newspaper staff writer and freelance writer over the course of a Pennsylvania-based career of nearly 50 years. His previous book, Kids for Cash (New Press, 2012), detailed the corrupt juvenile justice system in northeastern Pennsylvania that shocked the state and the nation.

This current volume is a collection of a dozen articles selected from among the more than 100 he wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine. They sparkle with entertaining and informative prose, covering subject material from the making of pencils in a Pennsylvania factory to the making of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, from the pervasive culture of deer hunting to the lingering stain of the Ku Klux Klan. The articles were originally published from 1982 to 1994 but remain as appealing as when they first appeared. What’s surprising is how long it took for these gems to be collected in book form.

The common denominator that runs through the pieces comes from the vivid portraits of the people who animate the stories. For example, “Intimate Strangers” is a tour de force about Gov. Bob Casey’s heart and liver transplant and the man, Mike Lucas, whose donated organs Casey received. Ecenbarger shows us the young man’s mother grappling with the final decision, and when she finally says yes, he tells us, “There is a full-length novel in her sigh.” Another example is “John O’Hara Could Go Home Again,” in which Ecenbarger presents a portrait of the novelist and short story writer who famously alienated his hometown of Pottsville, Schuylkill County, when he used it as the model for his fictional Gibbsville and spoke its secrets out loud. “You can still find some old-timers who will sputter with rage at the mention of his name,” Ecenbarger writes, adding this: “At the height of his popularity, O’Hara was outspoken. Indeed, there was no one who could outspeak him. He behaved like a rooster who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow.”

This book is likely to elicit a smile, a chuckle, a nod or a shake of the head in readers who appreciate the always interesting and sometimes odd byways of life in Pennsylvania.

Don Sarvey
Editorial Enterprises