Norvelt native authors book of short stories

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:03 p.m.

Teaching a 4-year-old neighbor how to read changed the course for Len Solo.

At that moment, reading “Alice in Wonderland,” he knew he wanted to be a teacher.

For the first time, he truly understood the power of words.

Solo recently published a collection of short stories, “The Turning of the Dark.”

The book features snapshots or an “episode in the life” of Billy Kendi, following him as a young man through old age.

A quarter of the book centers in Norvelt, Solo's hometown in Mt. Pleasant Township. Others take place in the Greensburg area.

The fiction collection is somewhat different than most short stories because each story is preceded by a short-short story which serves as an introduction into a longer story.

It's a practice, Solo admitted, he learned from Ernest Hemingway's collection of stories, “In Our Time.”

Solo is no stranger to writing. He has published education books and is working on his fourth volume of poetry.

But it's taken a long time for “The Turning of the Dark” to come to light.

“This book has been gestating for many, many years,” said Solo, 73, who lives in Marlborough, Mass., with his wife, Deanna Cross-Solo, who grew up in Wyano.

“This first story in this book I wrote when I was 20. I've been writing this book on and off. I saw a vision of the book to make a life out of this character,” he said.

Norvelt, a town named after Eleanor Roosevelt, was created during the Depression as a model community intended to better the standard of living of laid-off coal miners. Norvelt was built in six sections, and the lead character in “The Turning of the Dark” grows up in the B section, as Solo did.

Solo's sister, Patricia Gumbita, isn't surprised her brother featured their hometown in his new book.

“He always loved it here,” she said. “He'd always refer to how hard the men had to work in the mines.”

Gumbita said back then, people got a house, a piece of land and a chicken coop, planted a garden and learned the simple things about life.

“It's so very different than it is today and I think he always refers to that,” said Gumbita, who has lived in Norvelt for 72 years.

Les Edinson has known Solo for more than 30 years, having first worked with him when he was a teacher at a school in Cambridge, Mass., where Solo was principal.

He agrees with Gumbita that “Turning of the Dark” calls the reader back to a world that has vanished.

Although it is fiction, “Solo drew on his experiences in Norvelt, Pa.,” said Edinson of Hadley, Mass., who has read the book, along with its earlier versions.

“His father was a coal miner and Billy's father in the book is modeled on the experience of his own father.”

Edinson said Solo put so much of himself into his school that it's admirable that he also developed a creative side as a writer and an artist.

Gumbita isn't the least bit surprised, remembering that her brother “always had a book in his hand.'

But for Solo, the path wasn't always easily defined. He was an engineering student at St. Vincent College, graduating in 1961. At the end of his junior year, he switched his major to English.

He spent four years teaching math, English and social studies at the former Ramsay High School in the Mt. Pleasant School District. At 25, Solo longed to see more of the world so he took a job teaching in Massachusetts. Later, he combined his love for writing with education and wrote the book, “Making an Extraordinary School: The Work of Ordinary People.”

But poetry and the stories of Billy Kendi kept circling in his head. With a full-time career as an educator, the problem was finding the time to write.

Still, he wrote as often as he could. His first volume of poetry, “Landscape of the Misty Eye,” wasn't published until 2004.

Now that he is retired, all that's changed. Solo writes every day.

“Poetry engages my emotions, my intellect,” he said.

Norvelt engages those same emotions too.

“We visit a lot .. even though we've been away for a long, long time.”

“Turning of the Dark” can be purchased on Amazon and Publish America for $19.95.

Michele Stewardson is a freelance writer.

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