Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Katherine Paterson's Latest: Bread and Roses, Too

In my post of February 16, I wondered out loud if the movie version of Katherine Paterson's classic Bridge to Terabithia could possibly live up to the universal acclaim of her much-read original novel. But Katherine Paterson isn't a one-trick pony. Following her success with Bridge, she quickly wrote another Newbery book, Jacob Have I Loved, for somewhat older readers and has gone on to pen many other finely crafted novels for children and young adults.

In her latest, Bread and Roses, Too, Paterson returns to the historical novel form which has been one of her favorites, this time revisiting to the New England textile industry which figured in her earlier novel Lyddie, set in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1840's.

Bread and Roses, Too is set among the textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. During the passage of more than seventy years since the time of Lyddie, changes have come to the mills of New England, especially the predominance of middle European immigrants employed there, but what has not changed is the presence of child labor, long hours, and low pay which work to the enrichment of the owners and the debasement of the poor.

Patterson tells her story through the alternating accounts of two children, eleven-year-old Rosa Serutti, whose mother and sister Anna work in the textile mills, and slightly older Jake Beale, a native-born boy whose work in the mill supports himself and his abusive alcoholic father. When wages are cut to compensate for a cut in hours from 56 to 54 per week, the textile workers, most of whom are immigrant women of varied ethnicities, go on strike with the assistance of IWW organizers such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Initially, Rosa is terrified by the chanting crowds and her fear that the loss of their meagre income will leave the family to freeze and starve. Still struggling to attend school, Rosa is also conflicted by the well-meant prejudices of her teacher, who urges Rosa to try to be a "real American" and oppose the walkout and marches that follow. Gradually, however, Rosa is won over to the workers' movement by their courage and pride and by the avalanche of support from groups all over the country. It is Rosa, the only really literate member of her family, who creates the sign "BREAD AND ROSES, TOO" which gives the movement its historical name.

Jake Beale is too caught up in day-to-day survival, which involves stealing food and sleeping in churches or trash piles, to care about the labor movement, but he is also swept up by the marches, cameraderie, and free food offered by the labor organizations. When Rosa and other children are offered temporary care in nearby cities, Jake, having found his father dead in their shack, stows away on the train with Rosa, believing that it will take him to a new life in New York City. The train, however, takes Jake and Rosa to Barre, Vermont, where the Italian-American community warmly receive the poor children from Lawrence. Jake persuades Rosa to pretend that he is her brother, Salvatore, and the two are taken in by an old couple, the Gerbatis, who lavish the two with genuine affection, endless food, and new warm clothes.

While thriving under the care of the Gerbatis, Rosa is still overwhelmed with worry for her mother, sister, and baby brother and torn with fear that her lie about Jake will be discovered. The unschooled Jake manages to be allowed to work in Mr. Gerbati's stone carving shed, and still hoping to make his way to New York, he finally tries to steal enough money from Gerbatti's safe to fund his escape. When the old man catches him in the deed, his reaction is not what Jake has learned to expect. Somehow Mr. Gerbatti finds the goodness of heart to understand and forgive Jake when his whole story is revealed. The novel ends with the successful end of the strike and Rosa's return to Lawrence, while Jake looks forward to a life with his new family in Barre.

Jake and Rosa are characters whose hardships and choices are no less real for being foreign to most modern child readers. Paterson skillfully weaves their fictional life stories into the known history of the American labor movement in a story that maintains enough tension to keep readers going to the very end. Katherine Paterson remains a author whose skill compells the reader to look at society's less fortunate without sacrificing the universality of experience in their stories.

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