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From Ashes to Song Book Review

From Ashes to Song is a tale which weaves together local and family history, providing insight into the human condition. It explores themes of resentment, heartache, love, loss, rebirth, and reconciliation, serving as a celebration of life and its many challenges. Written by Hilar Hauck as her debut novel, this story takes elements of a fascinating true story and brings them to life over the course of 210 pages overflowing with detail and emotion.

The story begins in Italy in 1906 and is narrated from the perspective of the two main characters, Pietro and Assunta. Their stories begin apart and eventually converge. It is a happy time of harvest, and there’s a chance for young Pietro to prove himself as a musician. Then tragedy strikes in the form of a blight set to wipe out the grape vines that have been in the family for generations. During the stress that ensues, Pietro’s Nonno passes away, leaving him with the instruction to go to America and be trained in music. Running parallel to Pietro’s story is the tale of Assunta, which begins with her marriage to a previous flame named Nandy. He has returned from America after the tragic death of his last wife and child and is looking to start anew. After the marriage, they are set to return to America.


Neither Pietro nor Assunta wants to leave the comfortable familiar aspects of their current life in Italy, but destiny pushes them onward. With both main characters’ worlds turned upside down, it is off to America and fresh opportunity for each. The passage is rough and dreary; however, the passengers find an unlikely reprieve in the form of a young Pietro and his clarinet. As he plays, Pietro catches the gaze of the beautiful Assunta standing with her husband. That gaze would forever be burned into Pietro’s mind, and their stories become interlocked from this point on.


Pietro is later approached by Nandy on the ship and handed a slip of paper with an address from the town of Ernest, Pennsylvania, a town linked to Nandy’s past. The town band is looking for members. Processing on Ellis Island tears Assunta and Pietro apart, and Pietro wonders if he will ever see the beautiful girl from the ship again. In America, Assunta and Nandy head to Bracken, Pennsylvania and Pietro to the address scrawled on the slip of paper from Nandy.


Both Pietro and Assunta have very different first experiences with their respective coal towns. Pietro is nervous at first in this strange new land; however, his mood changes drastically when Mrs. Conati throws open her door and welcomes him in Italian. Assunta finds life to be bleak in Bracken with her lodgings and finances, but finds a friend in a neighbor Anna. Married life is not what Assunta expected it to be, while Pietro remains single and struggles to deal with issues of his own. Still, each character accepts their situation and decides to make the best of it.


Eventually, Nandy and Assunta move to Ernest, bringing Pietro and Assunta together once more. This is where the feelings between the two blossom, along with Pietro’s musical notoriety. Through the tragedy of a lost child, Nandy and Assunta’s marriage struggles. Ultimately, they reconcile, and the reader learns of Nandy’s continued suffering from past loss. This is partially why he appears mean and abrasive through the early parts of the story.


When things appear to be on the mend, tragedy strikes, once more, this time sending a rippling effect through the lives of everyone in Ernest. During the tragedy, the main characters exhibit an incredible amount of resilience and strength. The remainder of the story is a constant contrast between tragedy and reconciliation. Pietro and Assunta work through the continued heartache of losing loved ones and bonding together, dancing to the rhythm of life.

From Ashes to Song is well-balanced with its pacing, providing reasonable build up and back story for the main characters. This is followed by significant events occurring roughly halfway and three-quarters of the way through the story. This gentle rise and fall helps to keep the reader engaged and the story moving forward. The chapters vary in length, with smaller breaks that occur when changing the scene or transitioning to the perspective of another character. This helps to not only keep each section fresh and exciting but also propels the reader further through the narrative.


Viewing the story from two different perspectives, especially when in the same scene, provides readers unique insight into key points in the story. Complex and meaningful internal dialogue explores a wealth of human emotions. Each scene is a snapshot into the lives of the characters being portrayed. There are no villains in this story, just the tragedy of life and the challenges of coping with incredible loss. Many themes are covered throughout the story: the importance of knowing your roots, the challenges of adapting to a new environment, the yearning for the simplicity and comfort of childhood, and eventually taking on the responsibility of adulthood.


Through the countless trials, the reader sees Assunta’s strength, Pietro’s dedication, and the inner struggle of each. It would have been a nice touch to find out what was going on in Nandy’s head and gain his perspective. It might have helped the reader reconcile feelings had by other characters. But perhaps some elements of the story are probably best left to be unknown; in real life, we often have to guess what others are thinking and what motivates their actions.


The characters and settings of the book feel real and relatable. Hilary Hauck did an excellent job of capturing the essence of the various locations and bringing them to life. Countless scenes illustrate what may have been said around the dinner table, in the midst of a crisis, or everyday life. Food is repeatedly worked into the narrative, and the reader can almost smell the dishes being prepared. The reader feels like a welcome member of the family sitting at the table.


This story is one of many that could have been lost to time if it were not for the family sharing it and the author bringing it to life. Each person has a novel-worthy story hidden in the branches of their family tree.


If this story is at all interesting, please join the Society in welcoming Hilary Hauck for a talk on the book taking place Thursday, April 13, 2023 at 6:30 p.m. We do ask that you RSVP for planning purposes. There visitors can view photos of the families from the story and artifacts related to the tale, bringing these historic characters to life.


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