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HFC Editorial Review of "The Strongman and the Mermaid" by Kathleen Shoop

Author Bio:

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 (IPPY), Eric Hoffer Book Awards, Indie Excellence Awards, Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Readers’ Favorite 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. Kathleen coordinates Mindful Writing Retreats and is a regular presenter at conferences for writers. She lives in Oakmont, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. For more information, visit and

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Editorial Review:

Don’t move, don’t blink, don’t even breathe. It was maddening what they did, raiding like winter mice, scampering up steps, burrowing, consuming his things, demanding he leave the only home he’d ever known. Liars. As if it was for his own good.

In this first book of the Donora series, which can be read as a stand-alone, but of which I recommend everyone reading both books, we are introduced to Patryck Rusek as he hides in his attic as his family searches for him. He is ninety-one and the family thinks it is time for him to stay in a safer environment, but when they find him he is clutching a keepsake book about the history of Donora Pennsylvania, beginning in 1910. As his daughter and great-grandson urge him to come out of the attic, they find themselves lured into the stories in the book, stories of real-life legends and old world fairy tales.

Falling back in time, the story envelopes the early days of Donora at the cusp of the industrial days of the steel mills. But going even further back, this is a story about immigrants and the desire to seize hold of the American dream, beginning with Mary Lancos who lives near the Monongahela River in a house full of her siblings and boarders seeking a better life. This is a book depicting the harsh realities of the American poor right before the Great War, and stands side by side with similar depictions such as The Grapes of Wrath while an easier read along the lines of Water for Elephants. While Steinbeck is not everyone’s cup of tea, he is among one of my favourite American writers and I am not amiss to say that I’ve added Ms Shoop among the list.

In the story, Mary Lancos wants a future, a ‘lemon-scented life and a white-shirted husband’, so when Polish immigrant, Lukasz Musial, arrives in Donora with ambition in his eyes and a secure job at one of the wire mills, fate steps in and brings them together in quite the romantic fairy tale way.

She stayed like that, the pink moon illuminating her. An angel on earth.... He shook his head, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. His Wisloka Mermaid came to mind, the night she had seduced him from a frozen river....

. The dress she wore was the color of ice, and the wetness caused it to drape each curve. She looked every bit a mermaid, ascending out of the river.

Through countless missteps, failed matchmaking traditions, and passing casual meetings, Mary and Lukasz find each other and defy the odds and her family’s disapproval in a match made by the ‘pink moon’ - the strong man with his American dreams, and his beautiful mermaid rising from the Monongahela River on a cold night. And you will love the threads of baseball woven throughout the narrative, a link to the next book!

As a historical fiction lover and author, myself, I am humbled by the perfection of this book. Ms Shoop’s ability to take the immense amount of research she did on baseball, Polish traditions, language, religion, heritage, Donora history, immigration, American industrial history involving the steel mills, the reality of poverty, and the ambition of so many who came to these shores is astounding and is delivered in a phenomenal tale worthy of ten stars.

The unforgettable characters are as real as you can get for a novel, graphic and vivid during an era when the forging of America was on the backs of immigrants who wanted nothing more than to live a better life than what they came from – and yet, their passion and dreams often burned out under the strenuous circumstances of poverty, the threat of sickness, and the abuse of alcohol used to dull the endless and mindless working conditions and hours with meagre pay.

These are the conditions under which Mary and Lukasz find themselves, and during these desperate times they fall in love – unexpected and pure. There are so many moments you will find yourself smiling or your heart thumping hard as you engage with the characters on a deep level. Both this book, The Strongman and the Mermaid, and The Magician are books to treasure, and to read again and again.

There were so many details he couldn’t name about Mary, yet their souls understood, their hearts knew everything. They were meant for each other. Ridiculous, but that knowing kept returning like the moon returned each night.

So much more for Patryck to tell his great-grandson, Owen, and so much more story for you to enjoy in the next book. I loved every moment of this one and the next, and you can read my review on The Magician on the blog as well.


The Strongman and the Mermaid receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award badge from The Historical Fiction Company

Check out the others in Kathleen's Donora Series!

1 Comment

Dec 06, 2021

Very nice! Congratulations Kathleen!

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