Fuse #8

Monday, September 25, 2006

Review of the Day: Bread and Roses, Too

Doggone it, Katherine Paterson, stop making me cry! Under normal circumstances the number of books that make me tear up is a slim number that could be counted on one hand. And most of those books, if I was going to be honest with you, were probably written by Katherine Paterson. Ms. Paterson is a bit of a wonder. Year after year, decade after decade, she churns out consistently well-written meaningful pieces of children’s fiction. The last book of Ms. Paterson’s that I read was her rather remarkable, “The Same Stuff As Stars”. Now, however, she’s decided to traipse back into the world of historical fiction, alongside all the other authors this year, and produce a bit of fascinating history that can show a situation clear distinctions between good and bad, and yet leave enough room for people with nebulous motives. If complex narratives is the name of the game, consider Paterson a player.

On the one hand there’s Jake. On the other hand there’s Rosa. Both children live in Lawrence, Massachusetts in less than stellar conditions. For Jake, life is especially rough. His father’s a drunkard who steals his son’s money all the time and beats him senseless. And though Jake can usually make a little money in the local mills, it’s rarely enough to keep him fed and warm. Rosa, in contrast, is relatively lucky. She lives with her mama, elder sister, and little baby brother in one of the city’s many tenements. But life at the mill has been getting worse and worse and when it looks as if the mill owners are going to cut the workers’ pay yet again, that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Now Rosa’s mother is joining in with the 1912 strike alongside workers from a variety of different backgrounds. And that might not be so bad except that Rosa is firmly convinced that her mama is putting their entire way of life in jeopardy. Her worst fears are confirmed too when her mother puts her on a train to Barre, Vermont to wait out the strike with a kind family there. On the train Jake meets up with Rosa and though they are only barely acquainted, he convinces her to say that he’s her brother so that he can get out of town fast. As it happens, Jake has a secret he’s trying to escape while Rosa has a life she’s trying to remember.

Though it’s clear from the get go that the mill owners are bad and the mill workers are good, Paterson works tirelessly to muddle the issue through Rosa’s eyes. As far the girl is concerned, joining in the strike is dangerous and common. And Jake’s no better a person with his constant schemes on how to get ahead and lie his way out of most situations. When he finds himself with the striking workers the book reads that, “This was the excitement of being a thief in the middle of hundreds of thieves, all set to steal away the world of Billy Wood”, who is the mill's owner. In fact, you could probably say that there are few main characters out there half as self-centered as Rosa and Jake. For a long time all they think about is themselves. It takes a long time for them to get on that train headed for Vermont (150 pages or so), though once they do they’re taken far enough away from what they’re used to to think about something other than me me me. Rosa’s schoolteacher Miss Finch is another complicated character. Unlike the mill schoolteacher in “Counting On Grace”, Miss Finch is completely on the side of the owners. She doesn’t want Rosa to be taken out of school, but she also encourages the children vehemently to keep their parents from striking. Rosa is, of course, completely on her teacher’s side, and it’s interesting to watch as Paterson pulls the child reader’s strings back and forth and back again. She never tells her audience what to think and she doesn’t have to. This book is an excellent example of “show, don’t tell”.

For those amongst us who don’t know their American history as they should, I think I might not be the only one who thought that the title, “Bread and Roses, Too”, meant that this story was a sequel. I know, I know. I’m a Neanderthal. I accept that. Really, it wasn’t until the story showed how Rosa participated in naming the Bread and Roses Strike personally that I knew where the title even came from. Ms. Paterson, who is always good with clarification, mentions in the book’s Historical Note at the end that no one really knows who came up with that phrase. She just took the liberty of assigning the job to Rosa, and it works like a dream.

Part of the privilege that comes with being a writer is that if you would like to set a book partly in your own hometown, you have that right. Ms. Paterson sets part of this book in Barre, Vermont where she herself lives. The people of Barre have long been known for the role they played in hosting the children of the Lawrence strikers. Ms. Paterson used all kinds of Barre historians to aid her in the writing of this book, and the result is a story that certainly gives the city its due. The writing for its own part is, of course, pitch perfect at all times. And while the book’s first sentence is nothing to crow about, its last one is amazing. You won’t understand much of what it means without having read the book, but I’ll write it here just so you can get a taste of what Paterson’s about. “How strange, how wonderful it semed to be running, not away from petty crime or deadly fear, but toward a new life where bread was never wanting and roses grew in stone.”

It’s interesting to note that Paterson doesn’t go into the details of what working in a mill would entail in this book. We see the result of horrid working conditions rather than the cause. Technically she already showed the cause in her book “Lyddie”. And if you happen to be desperate to read about what it was like for mill children, definitely seek out Elizabeth Winthrop’s remarkable, “Counting On Grace”. If children reading this book can get past Rosa’s self-centeredness (she doesn’t ever seem to get behind the strike until it seems as if she's named it herself) and they don’t get bogged down in the story’s first half, they’ll be rewarded with a remarkable addition to the Paterson oeuvre. Reading “Bread and Roses, Too”, makes you feel, when you are done, as if you’ve become a better person for the reading. A lovely little novel.

Notes On the Cover: Gorgeous. I read an ARC of this book that had a significantly less attractive image on it than the one Clarion finally decided to go with. I mean look at that bread. You just wanna take a bite, don’t you? And you can’t tell from this photo but the image of the rose is embossed in such a way that it sticks out slightly. It does, admittedly, contain a disembodied female, but at least it isn’t sepia toned. Looking at it, I’m reminded of some of the other changes made from ARCs to final copies this year. When “The Sea of Glass” lost the image of a girl’s face on the cover, the publisher worried that it would be less kid-friendly as a result. The same thing, in a way, has happened here. On the original cover we see a skinny, somewhat unattractive, girl with her shawl drawn against a stiff cold wind. It’s perfectly fine but it looks as if drawn images are losing out to photographic ones this year. This new picture establishes right from the start that this is a piece of historical fiction, and there’s probably no better ad out there for bread. You just wanna take a bite... mmm mmmm.


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