This was a great peek into one of the historical labor union strikes of the early 1900s that helped make factory work more bearable. And the timing of this read is appropriate since the teachers of Los Angeles Unified School District just finished a labor strike, and Denver Public School teachers have also voted to strike. It’s set in Lawrence, Massachusetts in early 1912, and in Barre, Vermont, as it follows some of the children of the strikers. (In an attempt to help the strikers, the union arranged to send some of their children to families in New York City, Philadelphia, and Vermont that were sympathetic to the cause.)
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character in the book, or which have something to teach us about the history, geography, and/or people of that state. Right now we are finishing up Massachusetts.
Bread & Roses, Too, by Katherine Paterson (2000) was a good look at the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, sometimes called the Bread and Roses Strike. Paterson, a well-known children’s book author (she wrote Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved), gives a good overview of the appalling living conditions of the workers that led them to strike, without getting too grim for a children’s book (although one character sleeps next to his father’s corpse all night without realizing it). She gives details here and there throughout the story about the poverty they faced, while still maintaining interest in the story itself and not getting too depressing.
“Rosa, you understand? They short the pay two hours every week. That is five loaf of bread we don’ have no more. I work . . . my children starve. I go out to strike . . . my children starve. Whatever I do, we starve. Is better to fight and starve than work and starve, yes?”
She also discusses the importance of education, and the commonality of immigrant children acting as translators and interpreters for their parents. It would have been unusual for a young girl like Rosa to attend school and learn to read, but Paterson doesn’t focus on the oddity–instead she notes the prevalence of illiteracy among people of all ages, both immigrants and “native-borns.”
Which brings us to another theme in the book–that of discrimination against immigrants. At the time, supervisory factory jobs were preferentially given to either “native-born” Americans or Irish immigrants. On the one hand, given the lack of English-language skills demonstrated by many of the workers we see in the book, it’s not surprising that the mill bosses wanted to be able to speak with the shift supervisors. But the tactics used by the bosses and supervisors indicate an intention to maintain this as the status quo–encouraging discrimination, and stirring up conflict between the different groups. Plus, the measly salaries meant that families needed even young children to work in order to make ends meet (the Wikipedia page on the strike says that half the mill workers in Lawrence were girls aged 14-18, and Anna, the “older” sister in the book is 12), so they couldn’t afford to send them to school–even if the school was free (Paterson mentions that the parents were expected to purchase the children’s schoolbooks but most were unable to do so). All of this limited their ability to learn English and advance themselves.
Without Papa’s eight dollars and seventy-five cents a week, there was no way they could live on Mamma’s six dollars and twenty-five cents—especially with the new baby coming. … [So Mamma] paid the man who fixed papers to change Anna’s age, and Anna had gone to work.
One advantage of following the children to Vermont, rather than staying in Lawrence for the entire strike, is that it allowed Paterson to show the workers’ conditions through contrast–the threadbare clothes and lack of coats and boots, and the children’s delight in the availability of plentiful good food and a warm bed to sleep in.
The kitchen was full of the sweet, yeasty smell of bread baking. He dressed and hurried toward the heavenly aroma. Better than the bakery in the Plains. Besides, it was food that didn’t have to be begged or stolen. The Gerbatis had no end of food. They’d had three big meals on Sunday, and the old woman was starting it all over again this morning. It would be hard to leave, he knew. Three meals every day, guaranteed, not to mention a warm bed and the prospect of new clothes.
I should also note that there was a little bit of information about the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), which we read a bit about before, in Murder in Burnt Orange in Indiana, and which had ties to the socialists and anarchists.
I would have liked a bit more insight into the mills themselves and the textile work (I used to have several floor and table looms), but obviously the focus was on the strike, which precludes the actual weaving. It seemed like Paterson could have had a scene at the beginning, though, without making the book too long. I guess I’ll have to read Paterson’s Lyddie or Emmeline by Judith Rossner (one of my original picks for Massachusetts) to get that aspect.
I’ve noted before (in New Hampshire Pre-Visited) that the small geographic size of the New England states means there is some cross-over. I will tag this book as Vermont as well as Massachusetts, because we get some interesting descriptions of stoneworking when the children get to Barre, Vermont. Although New Hampshire is known as the Granite State, in Vermont, Jack works with a stonecutter. It was nice to learn a little bit about the trade–A Cry of Angels, which we read for Georgia, was set around a granite quarry, but the author didn’t get into any details about it. Paterson does, however. She also says in her Historical Note that the novel Like Lesser Gods by Mari Tomasi tells about the granite sheds of Vermont and the lung ailments that killed many workers there in the early 1900s–we’ll have to add this book to our Vermont list when we get there!
As for landscape, there wasn’t a whole lot for either state–mostly Paterson says that Vermont was a lot colder than Massachusetts, and there are a few references to the Merrimack River and several streets in Lawrence. And although these were able to invoke my own memories of the factory buildings that are still clustered along the river there, I’m not sure there was really enough to build a clear image to anyone who hasn’t been there.
Overall, though, it was a good look at a historical event in Massachusetts that had repercussions across the country, so it was a good addition to our reading challenge.