Thursday, March 13, 2008

Factory Girl

Greenwood, Barbara. 2007. Factory Girl. Kids Can Press.

Factory Girl is an interesting mix of fiction and non-fiction. Unlike "diary" or "journal" type books, that offer a nonfiction appendix, this book's chapters alternate between the fictional life of Emily, a 12-year-old garment worker, and non-fiction essays on the related issues of the day. (i.e., squalid living conditions, union organization, wretched factory conditions)

While this makes for very interesting and relevant reading, it also makes the book rather difficult to classify. A reader looking for a historical fiction novel may pass on Factory Girl because of its factual accounts (although they are well-written and accompanied by exceptional period photographs). A reader seeking a non-fiction book for a school report might likewise pass on Factory Girl because it is not likely to fulfill a teacher's requirements.

In either case, readers would be missing out on a great piece of history, both fictional and factual. The fictional Emily's story ends on a positive note as she makes the decision to go public with conditions in the sweatshop after she loses a friend in a factory fire. Of course, this is paralleled by the true-life Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911.

Factory Girl ends with an ironic twist. Although child labor laws were eventually passed during the Great Depression (more to provide jobs for men than to save children) , United States consumers still purchase clothes and carpets made under the same appalling conditions detailed in the story. Thousands of children still labor in the sweatshops of India, Pakistan, China and other countries. Greenwood reminds readers that the solution is education, "North American children, for the most part, are now able to enjoy their childhood as they grow into educated adults. One battle has been won, but in other parts of the world, the fight continues."

The numerous photographs by noted 19th and 20th century reformers and photographers, Jacob Riis, J.S. Woodsworth, and Lewis Hine, add a great deal of power to this story of hardship, endurance and hope.

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