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A Labor Day Reading List

Happy Labor Day! For most of us Labor Day has come to be a symbol of the end of summer — a day for barbecues with family and friends, a final outing to the beach, and a day off of work. But this year, why not take a few minutes to think about the many women, men, and children who fought for unions, children’s rights, the right to work, fair pay, and more? I had this on my mind this summer because of a book I recently read, which, of course, led to thinking about the other books out there that shine a spotlight on the history of labor. With that in mind, here’s a short list of reading for Labor Day.

When I think of significant labor events, I think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In 1911, 146 garment factory workers died when the building caught fire. Because doors and stairwells were intentionally locked and blocked, they could not escape and perished. The horrific tragedy led to safety regulations and helped bring about the union, which fought for better conditions.

This tragic story is personalized and brought to life in Threads and Flames by Esther Friesner (a 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults title). Thirteen-year-old Raisa, a recent Polish immigrant, has found work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Her new life is looking hopeful; unfortunately tragedy is on the horizon.

In Lost by Jacqueline Davies, Essie also works at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Like many recent immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York City, she has a difficult life, but at least she can earn money at the factory. Essie becomes friendly with a mysterious co-worker who definitely is not what she seems. This is a vivid portrayal of Essie’s world as well as a story about grief and loss.

Margaret Peterson Haddix brings together three different points of view in Uprising. Bella and Yetta are recent immigrants who work at the factory, and Jane is a picketer looking to support women’s suffrage and labor rights. The story is told in alternating voices and also brings in the struggle for workers — poor and often newly arrived to the country and speaking very little English — to speak up.

I like historical fiction because I think that nothing can make you understand the facets of history quite like reading a personal (if fictionalized) account. Raisa, Essie, Bella, Yetta, and Jane’s stories will have readers in disbelief over the working conditions the girls endured that did lead to people’s deaths.

Terrible working conditions in the garment industry were not limited to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Lowell, Massachusetts was home to textile mills and young women struggling in them. Lyddieby Katherine Paterson is an oldie but a goodie. Young Lyddie’s family must be split up when they have too many debts and are about to lose their farm. From then on out, it’s a struggle for Lyddie to survive and make her way in the world, including working in Lowell’s mills. Her determination against a backdrop of poverty is an inspiring tale. Recently Paterson returned to the Massachusetts mill setting in Bread and Roses, a story for younger readers about two children struggling through a mill workers’ strike.

If you are a non-fiction reader, check out Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin. This compelling work explores the tragedy and its impact and was on ALA’s 2012 Amelia Bloomer Book List. And, although it’s not about the garment industry, I also recommend Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery by Susan Kuklin. When this book came across my desk in 1998 I couldn’t put it down and had tears in my eyes when I finished. Terrible working conditions and child labor are not just stories from the early 20th century. As a 10-year-old, Iqbal was a bonded laborer in a Pakistani carpet factory. He witnessed and recognized child slavery and fought to bring attention to it and, like many who speak out against injustice, ended up murdered.

Migrant workers are also a big part of labor history. For a contemporary novel, try All You Get is Me by Yvonne Prinz, which is about a girl coping with moving to an organic farm, falling for a boy, and getting caught up in a crusade about workers’ rights for undocumented Mexican farm workers. And moving into the future a bit, Cory Doctorow’s For the Win is a cyperpunky take on workers banding together to change things — virtually.

As for the book that started me thinking about all of this? It is For the Love of Mike by Rhys Bowen. It is an adult mystery in the Molly Murphy series that is about the garment industry, the Lower East Side, the terrible working conditions (docked pay if you open a window or use the bathroom or turn on heat) and how Molly, working undercover to discover who is stealing fashion designs, can’t resist trying to unionize and get the other girls to stand up for humane treatment and working conditions. Though it is not specifically about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, there is a fire here, too. Although this is an adult novel I think it would have great appeal for teen readers.

By all means kick back and enjoy the holiday, but go ahead and check out one of these books this week. It will surely give you a new appreciation for safe and healthy working conditions, for seeing children off to school and not off to the mill, and for not having your pay docked to use a toilet!

— Sarah Debraski, currently reading Elliott Allagash by Simon Rich

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Sarah Debraski