Labor and employment relations alumna publishes historical novel

"Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash" by Tammy Pasterick '97 follows Eastern European immigrants in industrial Pittsburgh at the turn of the century.
Labor and employment relations alumna publishes historical novel

Tammy Pasterick

You can read the original story on Penn State News

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When Tammy Pasterick set out to do genealogical research, she didn’t intend to write a novel.

“I started out researching my great grandparents, who emigrated from Slovakia and Lithuania,” recalled Pasterick. “My genealogy project became the starting point for this story.”


Pasterick’s debut novel, "Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash," published by She Writes Press in September, follows an immigrant family through the steel mills and coal mines of Western Pennsylvania in the early 1900s during the “golden age of steel.”

The story introduces readers to Eastern European immigrants Janos and Karina Kovac and their children, Sofie and Lukas. Despite a decade of strenuous work in the dangerous conditions of a Pittsburgh steel mill, Janos is still far from giving his family the American Dream. Karina chafes at being stuck in their run-down ethnic neighborhood, and Sofie fears for her father’s safety at work.

When Janos witnesses a gruesome work accident on the same day Karina learns she will lose her job as the housekeeper for a mill manager, the Kovac family faces losing everything they have worked for. Karina makes one fateful decision that will reverberate through the lives of her children and neighbors, and Janos is left to rebuild the family.

During her undergraduate studies, Pasterick took the introductory labor and industrial relations course with Professor Paul Clark and was later his teaching assistant. Clark described the book as both compelling and meticulously researched. “The story captivates the reader while providing insight into the harsh and harrowing experience of immigrants coming to this country. It also highlights the enormous strength and sacrifice required of those who came before us.”

Pasterick began college at the University of Pittsburgh with a major in German. She transferred to Penn State to finish a degree in labor and industrial relations, which is now the labor and human resources major.

“I kind of fell into labor studies. My dad’s background and my own working experiences definitely influenced my decision, but I also loved the liberal arts: writing, history, and political science. I chose a major that had all those subjects.”

Pasterick’s father was a coal miner, and she grew up hearing about unions. A summer job she held at a warehouse also played heavily into her choice of major.

“They wanted us to work overtime every single day and come in on Saturdays. It was never enough to work eight hours, they wanted 10,” she explained. “I remember asking my dad if they could force us to work those hours. He said, ‘Of course they can. You don’t have a union, and they can just fire you and find someone else.’"

Pasterick graduated from Penn State in 1997, then spent two years working as an investigator for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Philadelphia.

“I investigated unfair labor practices,” she explained. “The most common charge was that someone was fired for trying to organize a union. After the charge was filed, I would take affidavits and interview witnesses, then determine if there was enough evidence to issue a complaint and proceed with a court case. With administrative law cases, the result is often prescribing remedies like reinstating someone with back pay.”

Pasterick also ran union elections which required her to visit a variety of workplaces including an oyster processing plant, a nuclear plant, a bakery, and an ambulance company. When a group of workers wanted to start a union, they needed to get enough authorization cards signed in order for the NLRB to hold an election and certify the results.

Pasterick said she still had an interest in German and went back to school to pursue the subject. She taught at Penncrest High School, then stopped teaching to stay home with her children. When her youngest started kindergarten, Pasterick began the research that would ultimately culminate in "Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash."

“When you’re setting a story in a coal mine or steel mill a hundred years ago, there’s no avoiding the research,” she laughed. “I read lots and lots of books, but surprisingly, YouTube was also helpful because there were old clips of what the mines and mills looked like.”

Another source that Pasterick relied on was "The Pittsburgh Survey," a sociological study conducted between 1907 and 1908. The previous year saw a peak in immigration, with almost 1.3 million people coming to the United States. Part of the survey included an entire book dedicated to steelworkers. It gave great insight into living conditions in their neighborhoods, the harsh working conditions, and other details Pasterick wove into her novel.

Pasterick said some of the characters came from her own experiences growing up in a very blue-collar town. “For example, Pole Stofanik, a close friend of the Kovacs, was inspired by the boys I grew up with. A little rough around the edges, but at the end of the day, they were good kids with big hearts,” she added.

“I did a lot of writing for work, but never creative writing. It’s fulfilling to be able to play with words and dialogue and write these emotional scenes,” said Pasterick. “My dad and uncle were coal miners, another uncle was a steelworker, and I studied labor relations. I think that’s why I decided to pursue this novel.”

Visit her website or follow her on social media for updates. You can also get a copy of "Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash" online or wherever books are sold.

“Penn State is such an amazing university, and my experience there was wonderful,” Pasterick said. “It was a great program, and it gave me a really good start. And Penn State always welcomes you back."

October 15, 2021