We’re into Deep Cuts territory with Dear America now, and this is the very last book of the “original flavour” series to be released. (I’ll get into the relaunch and newer books later. I have A Lot of Thoughts.)
Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, A Shirtwaist Worker, New York City, 1909, Deborah Hopkinson, 2004.
Now, Deborah Hopkinson wrote a nonfiction book about life in the tenements in New York City, which was great, so this book is just bursting with colourful detail. This is a pretty strong note for Dear America to end on, with a really solid story—even if tenement life and the Triangle Shirtwaist story is relatively well-known, this is a nice addition. However, it shares a lot of similarities with the 2002 novel Ashes of Roses, which I will get to later, but I don’t think it’s close enough to really be that much of a problem, I’m just nitpicking.
Angela is a fourteen-year-old Italian girl forced to leave school to go to work in a shirtwaist factory, since her family desperately needs her wages. Her teacher is frustrated, since Angela has a lot of promise, but nothing to be done—Angela’s father is a brick carrier who can only work when there’s work to be had, and her mother does piecework at home making flowers, and her older sister works in a factory already, and her younger brother wants to leave school to become a shoeshine boy, and her youngest sister Teresa is sickly and ill almost all of the time. This book owes a lot to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as well, but the biggest one is the theme that Angela doesn’t want to leave school to work, but her younger brother is crazy to go and start working himself.
The tenement district where Angela lives is full of Sicilian immigrants like her family, called paesani, and the neighbourhood is like one big extended family. Angela doesn’t entirely like it, but her older sister Luisa loves it, and Angela hates how they’ve grown apart since Luisa left school and started to work. Luisa gets Angela a job at her factory, and after just one day of work she’s exhausted from spending twelve hours in a filthy, hot factory snipping threads. Another one of the girls, Clara, puts the needle through her finger (which is so horrifying I don’t even want to imagine it), and one of the Jewish girls, Sarah, mentions that union activism would stop things like this. Luisa gets upset with Angela for listening, and tells her to stay away from activists, and that nothing good will come of that.
But Angela likes Sarah, and she likes to chat with her to practice her English, and Sarah tells her all about growing up in a shtetl in Russia. Although Luisa keeps on saying that the union is only for Jewish girls like Sarah, Sarah herself tells Angela that it’s for everyone, and that nothing is ever going to change if none of the girls unite. When Luisa comes down with a fever, Angela realizes that her family is going to depend on her income, and there’s a lot of girls in the same situation—they literally can’t afford to strike if their family won’t eat without their pay. Most of the women agitating for better conditions for the workers are wealthy American women (American meaning native-born American, since Angela doesn’t think of herself as an American), and some of the girls don’t trust them to be helpful to poor girls like themselves.
There’s a mass meeting for union workers, and Angela attends with Sarah and the other girls, even though she isn’t sure she wants to become a union member at all. The day afterwards, Sarah calls a strike in their shop, and they all walk out. Not only their shop, but all the garment shops on the entire block. Thousands of girls all go together to the rally hall, and Angela realizes that she does want to become a union member—Luisa is extremely angry with her, and thinks that the wealthy American women are just out to better themselves. But Angela cares more about the union than her sister’s irritation, and she goes to a union meeting with Clara and Sarah, and gets sucked into translating the speeches in Italian. Sarah tells Angela that she just has to keep on coming, that they absolutely have to have an Italian girl standing there with the Jewish and American girls, that it will make things look so much better for everyone. So Angela finds herself to be an actual union activist—of a sort.
Since their shop is on strike, Luisa is much more frustrated with their lack of work, and says that if they don’t settle soon, she’s going to go to work at the Triangle shop. She does go after a few more days, and Angela stays to picket, even though she feels awful and torn about pleading with others not to cross the picket lines when she knows that other families are hungry and cold just like hers. Even with her brother Vito leaving school to work as a shoeshine boy and her mother working constantly to make flowers, there’s barely enough money to go around and feed them all. Girls go to the Triangle company since it’s hiring and paying, but their labour conditions are famously awful, even for sweatshop employees.
Angela’s shop eventually settles, and she goes back to work, but Luisa remains at the Triangle company instead. In March Angela catches a cold and then Teresa gets sick as well, but while Angela recovers quickly, Teresa gets progressively sicker and sicker. Angela and Luisa aren’t speaking, even when Angela tries to smooth things over—but then Teresa dies, sending Angela’s world to pieces. She has to go back to work after a few days, which doesn’t help her terrible grief. As the summer creeps by, Angela continues to hang around with the other labour organizers and ignore her sister, because Luisa doesn’t seem to be interested in her, either. They participate in some strikes and walkouts, and they seem to be making great advances for everyone in the garment district.
Angela writes in her diary less and less, since she’s busy helping her mother with all the things Teresa used to help with before she died. And then in March of 1911, the worst—Angela is in the park with Clara and her friends, waiting for the others to get out of work, when they smell smoke and hear that one of the buildings is on fire. It’s the Triangle building, of course, and they run as quickly as they can, and arrive in time to see girls jumping from the upper floors to escape the flames.
I can’t overstate how good this section is, how gut-wrenchingly written it is. “The next moment two more girls appeared in the window. I could see red flames from the floor below flashing around their faces. They must have seen the other girl fall. Maybe they even heard the thud. But they threw themselves into the air anyway. They had to, the fire was too fierce. They twined their arms around one another. They were friends—maybe they were from the same village back in Russia or Italy, or maybe they had sat at sewing machines next to one another, hour after hour. The firemen did their best. They got the net right under them, but it did nothing. The girls broke through the net.”
It’s horrible and painful and really, really superbly done. Angela faints in terror, and a policeman eventually sends her home, and Angela is alone, sobbing on the kitchen floor when Luisa comes back—dirty and dishevelled, but wonderfully alive. They cry and cry and cry, not only for Luisa but for their friends who have died, and all the girls who died without anyone to look for them or claim their bodies.
Angela’s shop closes the afternoon of the memorial march, and Luisa finally admits that she’s proud of Angela for her work—and all the girls march together in the rain to honor the ones who died.
Rating: A-. I didn’t think I’d enjoy this as much as I did—and this is the first time I read it, since I never read it when it came out new. It was really well-written, with plenty of detail about the labour work without ever crossing over into boring or tedious. I loved all the detail about tenement life, and the writing is great. My only quibble would be that the characterization is a bit flat—you never really get a good sense of Angela as a person, she’s more of a cipher for the story to happen around. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that I usually expect a bit more out of a diary-style book. The other characters are a bit more of the same, on the flat side, but the story is good enough that I won’t complain too much and dock too much off the rating for it.