When I was in eleventh grade, my US history teacher didn’t give us a very good overview of US history. Instead, he would get fixated on different periods or people and beat them to bloody pulps. Very discouraging to someone like me, who loves the interconnectedness of history. One of his pet topics was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911. We talked about it a ton, but I couldn’t have told you why it was significant…until I read this particular book in preparation for the Damsels’ week of Dear America reviews.
Hear My Sorrow tells the story of Angela Denoto, an immigrant from Sicily who lives in a New York tenament with her family. In the fall of 1909, when she turns fourteen, Angela quits school to go to work alongside her older sister at a shirtwaist factory. She starts out snipping threads off finished shirtwaists, then works her way up to being a sewing machine operator. Angela and the other girls in her shop are given none of the workplace benefits we take for granted today. They often work seven days a week and are paid by the week, not the hour, with no overtime pay; they must pay for their own needles, thread, and lockers; they are forbidden to talk, even during lunch. Angela’s sister, Luisa, tells Angela she will get used to it, that it’s necessary in order to help the family survive. But a Jewish girl, Sarah Goldstein, introduces Angela to unions and strikes, and Angela must make hard decisions about what is right.
Few other historical novels I’ve read have been able to take a complex issue like early labor reform and humanize it in terms kids can relate to. Granted, I’m not a kid, but I wish I’d had this book when I was in eleventh grade, trying to understand why that fire was significant. Through Angela and her family and friends, readers get a sense of how “cliquish” the shops and the tenements in general were. Italians trusted Italians, Russian Jews trusted Russian Jews, and neither group trusted each other or native-born Americans very much. Since garment shops were made up of all three groups, establishing unity in the strikes proved difficult. The larger factories, like the Triangle Company, also called the strikers’ bluff, so to speak, because even though they were dedicated to their cause, their families needed to eat. It was a very turbulant time, and this book captures that beautifully, through details such as Angela only being allowed to shop at market stalls owned by fellow Italians and images of the families making artificial flowers to suppliment their meager incomes. The account of the Triangle fire toward the end of the book are much sadder than I ever got out of my US history class.
I’ve read many Dear America books and never one I flat-out disliked. This one, even though it doesn’t capture a time period I’m crazy about, stood out for me. It really grabbed me and kept me engaged with the story and the narrator. I chose this book somewhat at random, but I’m glad I did.