Heart of Steel: Based on a True Story by Kevin Miller takes us back in time to rural Ohio in 1920 – to the Puchalski Farm just out of Southington, Ohio. Family patriarch George Puchalski, a Polish immigrant, has made a success of his “American Dream” as a respected businessman and farmer in the rural district. George, however, has his demons, with a wandering eye, a violent temper, and an alcoholic disposition, which are expressed with rage and violence against, his wife, and children. After one particularly violent episode in which his wife and daughter, Sophie are both viciously beaten, the family is in turmoil. When George is murdered in his bed, one night and his wife arrested for complicity in his murder, the five siblings suddenly find themselves as orphans. It falls on twelve-year-old Stanley William Puchalski to step up and become a “little man”, in order to protect his siblings from the abuses that are inherent in Orphanages of the time. We follow Stanley’s rights of passage into adulthood, as Stanley William Puchalski transforms himself into Stanley William Miller, as the five children seek to put their violent pasts behind them, forever.
Author Kevin Miller has taken a gamble in writing about such a hidden and violent past from his ancestors. This is never an easy task, as it is difficult to be objective when dealing with family histories, with so many sensitivities to be aware of. In Heart of Steel: Based on a True Story, Miller handles the difficult teenage years of his grandfather with clear pride, but also tempered with an understanding that this young man, forced to grow up so early, was also stalked by demons, similar to his father. He was able to give the character a wonderful balance between his clearly big heart and his burgeoning wild side. I particularly loved the determination and courage Stanley showed in taking responsibility for his four siblings at such a tender age. The author’s pride in his grandfather’s courage shines through this book like a beacon, as does the love between his grandfather and grandmother. This story is one, first and foremost, of love – a mother’s love for her children that would drive her to commit and unspeakable act and the love of five siblings for each other and ultimately both of their parents. I thoroughly enjoyed the overarching them of forgiveness that ran through the narrative. This is a fantastically easy book to read and one I would highly recommend to anyone who loves historical fiction and family drama, or simply anyone who loves a good tale, especially with a basis in fact.