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Vermont Reads One Of Its Own

For the Valley News
Published: 1/25/2018 10:00:47 PM
Modified: 1/25/2018 10:00:53 PM

For its annual Vermont Reads program, the Vermont Humanities Council has chosen a book that seems destined to foster discussion about immigration and inequality: Bread and Roses, Too, Katherine Paterson’s fictional account of a New England mill strike a century ago.

Paterson is the author of 16 novels for children and young adults and has won nearly every prize available to authors of children’s literature, including two National Book Awards and two Newbery Medals. She lived in Barre for more than 30 years and now lives in Montpelier.

Another Vermont treasure, the Vermont Humanities Council was founded in 1974 in Montpelier and has been a major contributor to the state’s intellectual and social life. The council sponsors programs throughout the year that bring Vermonters together to discuss ideas and matters of current social and political importance.

Vermont Reads, which selects a book for all Vermonters to read and discuss, and gives grants to provide books, supporting materials and logistical assistance to encourage towns to participate, is one of the humanities council’s most popular programs. More than 200 Vermont towns have taken part over the program’s 16 years.

Bread and Roses, Too, published in 2006, is a work of historical fiction directed at young adult readers. It tells the story of the strike of immigrant mill workers in Lawrence, Mass., in 1912. The title of the book was the slogan adopted by the strikers as they walked out of the textile mills along the Merrimack River: It spoke to their yearning for both better pay and more humane living conditions.

The strike lasted more than two months, and several deaths resulted from violent confrontations with the militia and police. National attention was focused on Lawrence as union leaders from across the country provided financial and in-kind support.

Paterson tells this story through the eyes of two Lawrence youngsters — Rosa, the middle child in an Italian family living in a third floor tenement apartment, and Jake, a native born Irish-American youngster who works in a textile mill and delivers his weekly paycheck to his alcoholic father.

A hallmark of Paterson’s work is a willingness to introduce difficult and challenging topics to her young readers, and this book is no exception. Poverty, illness, malnutrition, alcoholism, child neglect and abuse, and death are all there and are not softened or glossed over. The pain and suffering of the two main characters are starkly presented in their first encounter as Rosa and Jake meet in an alley where Jake is seeking a bit of warmth in a garbage pile where Rosa has hidden her shoes.

The first part of the book tells the story of the strike, which was triggered by a wage cut. The arrival of the Wobblies, the mounting violence of the police and militia and the organizing efforts of the Italian, Lithuanian and Polish workers and other immigrant laborers are recounted through the eyes of Rosa and Jake as they struggle with the harsh conditions of the strike.

The second part of the book tells the story of the how hundreds of immigrant children were sent by their parents to families in New York, New Jersey and Vermont to escape the hardships and violence of the strike. Thirty-five Italian children were sent to Barre, already an active center of union organizing, and welcomed by the Italian-American community of granite cutters there. The generosity and warmth of the Barre families serves as a stark contrast to the treatment of the immigrants by the Lawrence mill owners and the authorities.

This book will appeal to both young adult readers and their parents. It has strongly-drawn characters, a swift-moving plot, enough suspense to keep the pages turning, and a well-balanced mixture of history, social commentary and action. It is clear why Paterson has maintained her status as the pre-eminent writer of young adult fiction into her 80s.

The Vermont Humanities Council will be donating 75 copies of Bread and Roses, Too to communities around the Green Mountain State that apply for a grant. The application requires three community-based groups (libraries, schools, historical societies, churches, bookstores, community social groups, etc.) to sponsor their local program, distribute the books and organize settings where the book and the issues it raises can be discussed.

Bread and Roses, Too was a fine choice because the questions it raises about immigration, blue collar work, the inequality between the poor and the rich and the impact of poverty on children are issues that are of central importance for our nation today, as they were more than 100 years ago. Although the tenor of our national politics and dialogue around these issues has deteriorated, Vermont towns that receive a VHC award can use this opportunity to return to civil conversation about these important topics.

The first deadline to apply for a VHC Vermont Reads grant has passed, but there is plenty of time before the next deadline, June 1. Urge your local school, library, historical society or other town organizations to come together to apply for this wonderful program and the social goods that follow from reading, learning, discussing, sharing and listening to our fellow citizens.

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at mfepstein@gmail.com.




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