Winner of the
2002 Western Writers of America Spur Award

What the critics are saying about Rockbuster:


Tommy Quinlan, an 18-year-old coal miner in a small town in Utah, has been tangled up in union business all his life. When he is only 10, in 1907, his uncle, who works for the United Mine Workers union, takes him along on a dangerous mission to either pay for the lawyers for Big Bill Haywood, a union boss accused of murder -- or bribe the jail guards to break him out. The uncle is captured and killed by Pinkerton detectives, but Tommy manages to deliver the cash. His uncle's death means that Tommy and his widowed mother must scramble for money to feed themselves, and Tommy is forced to leave school and go to work in the mines. He inherits his uncle's guitar, and slowly builds a reputation as a musician, entertaining others for extra income. When at the age of 16 Tommy is invited to perform at the mine owner's home, he meets the man's teenage daughter, Eugenie. They fall in love, despite the class difference that divides them, but must sneak about behind her father's back. Tommy's music also brings him to the attention of Joe Hill, who wants him to become "a singing, song-writing troubadour for the Industrial Workers of the World" and leaves behind a request that Tommy sing at his funeral -- though his job as a miner will be at stake. "It seems everyone has a different idea of what I ought to become, Mom," Tommy complains, but in the end he vows to become his own man, not a musician, a miner, or a union man, but a lawyer, to fight for justice for all. This interesting historical novel provides much information on early union struggles and court cases that YAs might not know about. Historical figures like Bill Haywood and Joe Hill come to life here, and the novel includes a brief list of books, Web sites, and songs for further reference at the end. Tommy's difficulties are believable and will elicit readers' sympathy, as he toils in the mines, experiences ups and downs in his relationship with Eugenie, gets shot at, and in general behaves honorably and even heroically while trying to chart his own course.

From School Library Journal

This finely crafted and richly detailed coming-of-age story is made both distinctive and universal as readers follow Tommy's maturation. Skurzynski's research into the lives of Utah miners in the early 20th century and the efforts of workers to organize becomes evident in her convincing portrayal of their world, their cares, and their struggles. Rockbuster is an engaging story of self-discovery that teens will relate to on many levels.


Tommy encounters historical figures Bill Haywood and Joe Hill, hard-core union organizers at the turn of the century whose experiences with the United States justice system were disillusioning. Nationalism and cultural pride loom large as workers wrestle with issues that could band together immigrants from all across Europe. Skurzynski even provides romance as Tommy falls in love with the mine owner's daughter. Faults of the legal justice system not withstanding, Rockbuster realizes the American dream that hard work, clean living, and heart combine to allow good to prevail and that success awaits the man who pulls himself up by the bootstraps. Reading this book makes one believe the myth wholeheartedly.

From Publishers Weekly

As Tom progresses from trapper to rockbuster, boy to man, Skurzynski effectively portrays the conflict, acrimony and even hypocrisy of the early union movement. When Wobbly songster Joe Hill, sentenced to death on a trumped-up murder charge, asks Tom to play at his funeral and take up his role in the movement, Tom must decide how he can best make a difference and how it will affect his romance with the mine owner's daughter. Readers will admire Tom for finding his own path to help ameliorate inequity and injustice. Ages 12-up.


One of the great strengths of the book is the subtle ways in which Skurzynski reveals historical detail. Instead of filling the pages with all the things she discovered about early 20th century coal mining towns, Skurzynski lets the details work into the story naturally. From small details (Tommy's search for an outhouse after a snow storm) to larger historical events (Tommy attends the trials of Hill), Skurzynski teaches history without slowing the story. That's good, because Tommy's story is a good one. While it is made up of some fairly common themes --- young man overcomes hardship to help his family, win the girl and discover his destiny --- Tommy is a compelling character whom the reader comes to see as a friend. His joys and sorrows are felt by the reader, and his indecision about his future is agonizing for the reader as well. His commitment to bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots leads to a logical and satisfying conclusion to the novel. ROCKBUSTER succeeds on both historical and narrative levels and should be enjoyed by anyone drawn to strong characters and good storytelling.


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