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Bread and Roses, Too: Katherine Paterson

I am partial to historical fiction, I'm a fan of Katherine Paterson, and I'm originally from Massachusetts. So when I head that Katherine Paterson had written a novel about the Lawrence, Massachusetts mill strikes of 1912, I simply had to read it. The folks at Clarion were kind enough to send me a copy of Bread and Roses, Too, and I moved it to the top of my to read stack (which is quite saying something - it's a big stack).

Bread and Roses, Too is told from the alternating perspectives of two very different children. Jake Beale has faked his papers to work at the local mill, is largely illiterate, and spends most of his time running away from his abusive, drunken father. He respects no one, and sleeps literally in garbage heaps. Rosa Serutti is the daughter of Italian immigrants, and attends school, though her mother and older sister work in the mills. She's studious, prissy, and quiet, and worries a lot.

Though they have different backgrounds and experiences, both children find their lives turned upside down when the Lawrence mill-workers go on strike. To tell the truth, neither reacts well. Jake steals, lies, and fails to appreciate people's kindness to him. Rosa lectures her mother about the perils of striking, and slinks along on the fringes of the marches and demonstrations that arise, even as she is sometimes inspired by them. I didn't much like either child, early in the story. But things do get better. Eventually, Jake and Rosa's lives intertwine. Rosa is sent away to live in safety with a family in Vermont, and Jake escapes along with her, towing a dark secret.

All of the major events in the book are based on  meticulously researched historical events (as detailed in a historical note at the end of the book). The Lawrence strikes are depicted as they happened, in terms of local and state responses, the presence of union organizers, and the humanitarian "vacations" provided for many of the mill-workers children. Barre, Vermont really did host several children from Lawrence during the strikes. A photo of the children inspired the author to look further into the story.

The historical detail does slow the book down a bit, especially in the early part, when Jake and Rosa are still in Lawrence. Because of this, I had a bit of trouble getting into this book. However, it won me over by the end, and had me in tears (in a good way). The two strongest aspects of the book, I think, are the depth of the immersion into the world of the immigrant mill-workers, and the complexity of the characterization.

Regarding the immersion, this is a book that will make readers feel lucky to have food, and warmth, and clean water, and not to have to worry about basic survival. Here's an example, when one of the Italian strikers buys lunch for Jake, giving him a platter of spaghetti:

It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. The tomato sauce even sported a few bits of greasy sausage. Jake forgot the crowd around him, forgot the strike, forgot the menace that waited for him in the shack, and fell to, his nose almost in the steaming plate. He hadn't had a full platter of food to himself in his entire thirteen years of life.

None of the characters in this book are one-dimensional, with the exception of Jake's dad, who is largely off-screen. Rosa's teacher is not very nice to the children in her class, and she tries to coerce them to convince their parents not to strike. And yet... she travels though the violence-prone streets to ask why Rosa isn't coming to school anymore, and she ends up providing lunch every day for the kids who remain in her class. The man in Barre that Rosa and Jake are sent to stay with, Mr. Gerbati, starts out silent and grouchy, and especially resentful of Jake. But when Jake actually gives him reason to be disapproving, Mr. Gerbati displays unexpected kindness "like his flowers blooming from the cold gray granite." Rosa's mamma is uncouth and uneducated, and somewhat careless of her children, but she has a voice like an angel, and she wants better for her Rosa than she ever had. Isn't that the immigrant dream?

I think that the book is accurate in capturing Rosa's struggles as the "smart one" in an immigrant family. She wants to fit in with her family, but even though she's still a child, her education is taking her beyond them. She's the only one who reads and writes fluently in English. At one point she thinks:

She would be an American, an educated, civilized, respected American, not a despised child of an immigrant race. When she grew up she'd change her name and marry a real American and have real American children. She wouldn't go out to work in a mill and leave them in the care of someone's old granny who couldn't even speak English. She'd stay home and cook American food and read them American books and ... But even as she thought these determined thoughts, somewhere in the back of her mind she could smell rigatoni smothered in tomato sauce with bits of sausage in it and could hear her mamma's beautiful voice singing Un Bel Di.   

I think that there are plenty of immigrant kids today facing the same sort of conflict between the promise of being American and the pull of their own culture.

This is a book that I'll remember for a long time. There is so much unflinching detail: Jake sleeping in the garbage; the welts on Jake's back; the wide-eyed awe of the children when they visit the Gerbati's house for the first time; and the feeling that Rosa has of being part of something larger than herself, during the demonstrations. I think this is one of those books that gets better in your memory, the longer it stays with you. I hope that kids will be able to get past the "good for you" feeling of the early historical parts, because the story has a lot to offer.

Book: Bread and Roses, Too
Author: Katherine Paterson
Publisher: Clarion Books
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Pages: 288
Age Range: 10 and up
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: From the Fishbowl, To Read or Not to Read, Rave Reviews Log, emilyreads, Becky's Book Reviews

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.