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Small towns,

Big problems,

American stories

Betsy Aardsma at Holland High School

I live in Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania, and write narrative non-fiction about small American towns, their people, and their crises. You can read more of my biography on the “About the Author” page under  the Centralia Mine Fire drop-down menu at the top of the page. My neighborhood, Shipoke, population about 200, is very much like a village, sometimes even like a commune.  A National Historic District, it is bounded on one side by the flood-prone and three-quarter mile-wide Susquehanna River, a source of beauty and dread, and on the other by a tall, faux-brick sound wall. The wall does lend a certain medieval German feel to Shipoke, and protects us to a degree from whatever nastiness is occurring elsewhere in Harrisburg. Or at least we like to think so.

My Books

Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away, Globe Pequot Press. The true story behind the Penn State legend. Betsy Aardsma, 22, was the pretty, bright, and well-liked graduate student who was stabbed to death in Pattee Library at Penn State’s University Park campus on Nov. 28, 1969. She was also from my hometown of Holland, Michigan, and went to my high school. I have written a dual biography of Betsy and her killer, how their lives collided, and how he got away with murder. Trade paperback, will also be available for Kindle and Nook right away and hopefully audiobook eventually. Here’s a Q&A with me about the book when it still was going to be published under its original title, The Girl Who Was Killed in the Library. You can read more about Betsy Aardsma elsewhere in this website. My book can be ordered at  Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, and Or have your local independent bookstore order it.  Many Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million stores in Pennsylvania stock it.

NEWS! 1/5/15: Murder in the Stacks wins the general non-fiction category in the New England Book Festival. It’s not the National Book Awards, but still nice.

(1986) Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire, University of Pennsylvania Press. A comprehensive history of the tragic underground fire that destroyed Centralia, Pennsylvania. Reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Cloth and trade paperback. Out of print, but don’t despair.

(2009) Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, Globe Pequot Press. An updated edition of Fire Underground, with three additional chapters and other interesting additions  here and there. It has a lot of my photographs of Centralia from the 1970s and 1980s. Now in its second printing. Trade paperback, also available for Kindle and Nook.

Fire Underground is back in print! As of March 1, it is available again from or wherever you buy your books.

(2011) The Epidemic: A Collision of Power, Privilege, and Public Health, Lyons Press. I tell the story of a typhoid epidemic that devastated Ithaca, New York, and Cornell University in 1903. Eighty-two people died, including 29 Cornell students. This is both a medical/environmental thriller and an intimate picture of a small town struggling to survive in the face of a terrible contagion. The business owner responsible for the epidemic founded the company that eventually became General Public Utilities Corp., responsible for the Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979. Cloth. Also available for Kindle and Nook.

Upcoming Public Book Events/Appearances

Wednesday, Mar. 18,  7 p.m. I will give a talk about the Betsy Aardsma murder case and sign copies of Murder in the Stacks at the Free Library of Philadelphia. This will be at the main building of the library at 1901 Vine Street.

Wednesday, Mar. 25, 7-9 p.m. I will give a talk about Murder in the Stacks and Fire Underground and sign copies at Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, 6 Clouser Rd., Mechanicsburg, Pa. Admission is $2.

Saturday, April 25. Talk on Centralia mine fire to PennDOT retirees breakfast, Lewisburg, Pa.

Recent News

Feb. 22, 2015 – A nice review of Murder in the Stacks in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer, which called it a “masterful piece of research and writing” and “the definitive work” on the Aardsma murder.

Feb. 17, 2015 – I was saddened to hear of the death on Feb. 17 of Fred Prouser, a renowned photographer who in 1981 made the iconic photograph of 12-year-old Todd Domboski standing near the steaming mine fire subsidence hole that nearly claimed his life on Valentine’s Day. If you have my book Fire Underground, it is on the third page of the first photo section. Fred, 62, had long battled liver cancer. He was a stringer for AP at the time he took the photo. In 1992, he joined Reuters in Los Angeles and had a long career as a photographer in the Hollywood community, working the red carpet at many Oscar ceremonies and other big events until about a year ago. Rest in Peace.

Dec. 6, 2014 – A show about Centralia is broadcast on Russian television. You’ll see me in it several times. Entirely in Russian, but the camera work and editing is so good that you’ll still find it interesting to watch even though you probably won’t understand more than a few words of it.

Nov. 30, 2014: Nice article in the Centre Daily Times in State College about Murder in the Stacks and me, by Jason Klose.

Nov. 22, 2014 – The Pittsburgh Tribune Review interviews me about Murder in the Stacks.

Nov. 2, 2014: I appear on PA Books, an hourlong interview show on PCN, to discuss Murder in the Stacks with host Brian Lockman. I covered a lot of ground. If you missed it, watch for reruns.

Nov. 2, 2014:  York Sunday News in York, Pennsylvania, publishes a nice story about Murder in the Stacks and a Q&A with me. It is the first story since my book came out to mention the obstruction of justice issues I describe in my book.

Oct. 27, 2014: District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller of Centre County, Pa., where Penn State’s main campus is located and where Murder in the Stacks is set, tweeted that she had read my book “and could not put it down! Fascinating look at our area, our history, PSP, PSU, Town v. Gown issues and the case! Bravo.”

Oct. 15, 2014: You can listen to my interview about Murder in the Stacks on WITF Smart Talk here. Scott Lamar was the interviewer.

Oct. 4, 2014: Murder in the Stacks is included in a round-up  in the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal of recommended new books. It was me, Joyce Carol Oates, and two people I hadn’t heard of. How this happened, I don’t know, but I’m happy because it shows interest in my book is starting to move outside Penn State Land.

Sept. 26, 2014: WPSU, the NPR station at Penn State in State College, reviews Murder in the Stacks. The reviewer, Kristine Allen, called it, “a book I almost literally couldn’t put down.”

Sept. 21, 2014: WWMT-TV 3, the CBS affiliate in Kalamazoo, Michigan has me on their morning show to talk about Murder in the Stacks. The interview is good, the headline erroneous. I didn’t write a novel, which by definition is fiction. I wrote narrative non-fiction, even if it reads like a novel.

Sept. 19, 2014: The Holland Sentinel publishes a front page story by Jim Hayden about me and Murder in the Stacks.

July 7, 2014: The first review of Murder in the Stacks is in, and it’s a good one. Publisher’s Weekly, the magazine of the book publishing industry, calls it “an exemplary true crime story.”

Older Centralia stories.

Centralia mine fire historical tours available

Two-hour (approximately) Centralia mine fire historical walking tours, led by yours truly, are available for a flat fee of $200 (any number in the group), which covers my travel and time from Harrisburg.  Media tours, which are slightly longer and more involved, are $250. I can now take credit cards (although we have to go down the hill to Ashland to get a strong enough Internet connection). Cash is fine, too. Unfortunately, much of the tour is not handicapped accessible. Coming back from the highway cracks is a gentle uphill walk.

I talk about the history of Centralia and the mine fire, show you where the fire started, take you to the gaping highway cracks opene3d by the fire (they are getting wider), and display large photos of  how the town used to look. I I talk about what the people of Centralia endured from the mine fire gases coming into their homes. The gases are not an issue during the walk. The tours are rain or shine and can be taken at any time. It is no longer likely that you will see steam coming from the ground, because of changes in the fire. You might, but recent tours have seen little or none. You will still have an amazing experience and come to understand the magnitude and anguish of what happened here.

Centralia Consulting

During the past ten years, I have worked with more than 15  television production companies filming stories on the Centralia mine fire. In 2013, for example, I worked with three different Russian journalists and their crews as well as Indigo Films, which was producing a piece for the Travel Channel.  I can make your job a lot easier, whether as an on or off-camera source or facilitator (‘fixer’ is the industry term, but not everybody knows that definition…). I have a graduate certificate in documentary filmmaking from George Washington University and I understand your needs. In addition, all of the photographs in my Centralia photo archive, an unparalleled collection of Centralia and mine fire images, mostly from the early 1980s when the crisis was at its peak, are available for license.

Fire Underground

Fire Underground


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