Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Historical Fiction, Mill Workers

I love history and historical fiction. This all started with my father. When we were kids, we would beg our father to tell us a story. Occasionally they were his own far fetched tales that he made up on the spot, but usually they were some historical event. Instead of starting a story with Once upon a time, in a land far, far away..., he would start with, "About a hundred and fifty years ago, Texas was part of Mexico..." and then would come the story of the Alamo, or Valley Forge, or the Rolling Stones at Altamont, you never knew. This gave me my great love for history because I never saw it as dates and names, I saw it as stories. Historical fiction is just telling those stories.

There are tons of options for historical fiction in the third to sixth grade range. Even through high school, there are lots of options. Here is what I've been reading lately and comparing it to some classics in various time periods. I'll probably stretch this out over several posts.

Mill Workers/Turn of the Century

Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop. Wendy Lamb Books, 2006.
I already talked about this a little in my entry on the Mock Newbery candidates. Here is the story of Grace who must leave school to work in the mill to help her family. She wants to be someone her mother can count on, but she also isn't sure about what she is giving up by leaving school. It is illegal for her and the other children to be in the mill so young, but no one enforces that. When people try to change it, Grace finds herself torn. Inspired by a picture of a girl working in the mill, this book does an amazing job of capturing life in a cotton mill in 1910. The author's note is amazing and gives historical details on both the mills and the photographer who captured images of the children working. Grace doesn't always know what she wants and the reader can easily see what a confusing time it would have been.

Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson. Clarion Books, 2006.
It goes against the grain to say anything against the amazing Katherine Paterson. She has given us so many fabulous books over the years. From any other writer, this book would be good. From Ms. Paterson, it is merely okay. I'd never heard of the Bread and Roses strike in the Lawrence mills of 1912, but I found it a fascinating subject. Before reading the book, I read up on the strike in various sources (okay mainly wikipedia). It was revolutionary not just because it was led by women, but because it united so many different immigrant groups. Speeches were translated into more than forty languages, people worked together, stood together, took care of each other, and won. All of that would have been nice to see in the book. The story follows Jake and Rosa who are sent away from Lawrence to stay with other families for the duration of the strike. It is told in alternating viewpoints of the two children. It's good, Rosa and Jake both show plausible character development. But if you want to read about mill workers and you want to read Paterson, read the true classic.

Lyddie by Katherine Paterson. Dutton, 1991
There are multiple covers of this book, so no picture of the cover. I read this as a child, and re-read it as an adult. It is set in an earlier time (1840s) than the other two and is less about workers' rights and more just about mill life. Lyddie is an impoverished, uneducated girl who leaves the farm to work in the mill. She betters herself through hardwork, determination, and education. The main character is also older than the other two books. Here Lyddie is self-sufficient and in some ways caring mostly for her family (before they are disbanded). She is functioning as an adult. It is still a very accurate picture of mill life and better written than the other two.

For kids I would recommend the books in this order, but that is just my personal preference. I might just recommend the one that comes to hand first.
  1. Counting on Grace
  2. Lyddie
  3. Bread and Roses, Too

That isn't to say any of these books were bad. Even if my criticisms seemed negative, I enjoyed all of these books and would recommend any of them. These are all appropriate historical fiction choices for upper elementary students, but would probably primarily appeal to girls.

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