Melanie Crowder’s novel in verse tells the story of Clara Lemlich, a women’s labor activist in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. We follow Clara from the Russian shtetl where her family was the victim of pogroms to Ellis Island and a new but still impoverished life in New York. With her father and three brothers occupied studying Torah full time, Clara and her mother must find ways to earn money to support the family. Clara finds work in garment sweatshops with abusive managers, unreasonable hours and quotas, locked doors, child laborers, and unsafe working environments, all to earn less than $10 a week. Seeing the injustice and danger in working in such conditions, Clara sets out to unionize the female workers. She is met with opposition from her family, the men’s union, the managers, and their hired goons who beat her up on several occasions, but she won’t be silenced. At great personal cost, Clara perseveres and makes greater gains than her doubters could have imagined. While Clara’s story is compelling – even more so with the modern fight for wage equality and raising the minimum wage – the end of the book is unsatisfying and feels a bit unfinished. Extensive back matter elaborates on Clara’s story and labor issues of the time.
Clara’s family’s Jewish traditions and lifestyle were particularly interesting to me. I’m currently living in Jerusalem and am learning so much about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Much of it is unchanged from what the book describes in the early 1900s. Still today it’s very common for the men in ultra-Orthodox families to study Torah while the women of the family are the main providers, both financially and domestically, usually for families with 6 or more children. In Israel, the government has a welfare system to make sure these families don’t starve, but it is expensive and these families still live in relative poverty. Keeping Kosher while traveling and working on Shabbat are other issues that modern Jews still deal with, though access to packaged food and labor laws regarding religion make these much less of a big deal than they were for Clara’s family.
My other takeaway from this book – I’m shocked by how much Clara gets beat up! There is some serious violence against women in this book, and it is just amazing to me how this doesn’t scare Clara into silence. She really was so brave. She deserves to be held up as an example of standing up for what you believe in.