Monday, June 6, 2016

Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix, 2007

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Bella, newly arrived in New York from Italy, gets a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. There, along with hundreds of other immigrants, she works long hours at a grueling job under terrible conditions. Yetta, a coworker from Russia, has been crusading for a union, and when factory conditions worsen, she helps workers rise up in a strike. Wealthy Jane learns of the plight of the workers and becomes involved with their cause.
Bella and Yetta are at work--and Jane is visiting the factory--on March 25, 1911, when a spark ignites some cloth and the building is engulfed in fire, leading to one of the worst workplace disasters ever.
Margaret Peterson Haddix draws on extensive historical research to bring the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to tangible life through her thrilling story of Bella, Yetta, and Jane.

(346 pages)

This book is so sad.

The first time I read it, I spent the entire time trying to guess which two girls would die and simultaneously hoping that the narrator had lied and really all three of them would make it through the fire. My hopes were dashed. I can't say who died, but the truth is that I didn't want any of the three girls to die. They all had long lives ahead of them, so much to hope for. When I finished the book and put it down for the first time, tears streaked down my face; it took me a long time to completely understand and come to grips with the tragedy of the fire, and even longer to stop being haunted by it.

Now, re-reading Uprising, my strong reactions all come flitting back. The thing about this story is that there's so much going on even before the fire starts. Each girl is working to come to grips with the bad things in her life, and to find a way to continue on. There's the huge labor strike, and the description of the horrible working conditions factory girls endure; there's the moral dilemma Jane faces, in choosing between her wonderful stuff and the sexist father whose money provides it; there's Bella's struggle to adjust to America, and her guilt about leaving her family behind in Italy to die. If not for the last few chapters, this would be a very thought-provoking book about life in the early twentieth century for young women in America. It would have been a sad book, but also a hopeful one as all three girls worked toward a better future.

Instead, we have the tragedy of lives cut short by the factory fire. And it's this feeling of sudden, horrible destruction that is so terrible. It's not like the girls face a long, painful battle with cancer and then meet their deaths gracefully; one minute they're alive and fighting, making plans, and the next two of them are dead. This sudden shock, this destruction of lives that were so busy fighting for life just a few pages before, is what truly carries across the pain and horror of not just that one fire but all the events that have resulted in premature deaths. It's heartbreaking and thought-provoking, as all good historical novels are, and I'm much the better for having read it.

I only recommend this book to people looking for a serious read with the potential to make them cry. It's not a happy read, though it's certainly got its moments of hope, and you really only should read it if you're emotionally ready. If you are, and you do, definitely let me know what you think in the comments section down below!

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