BookMarks: 'Bread and Roses, Too' is Vermont Reads pick

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Katherine Paterson is a national and a Vermont treasure. The author of 16 novels for children, young adults, and adults, Paterson is much-honored having won the National Book Award twice, the Newbury Award twice, the two highest international honors for children's literature, and the American Library Association's highest honor for a writer of children's literature. 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 intellectual and social life of our state as embodied in their slogan: "Because ideas matter." The Council sponsors programs throughout the year that bring Vermonters together to discuss ideas and matters of current social and political importance.

One of VHC's most popular programs is Vermont Reads, which identifies a book for all Vermonters to read and gives grants to provide books, supporting materials, and logistic assistance to encourage towns to participate. More than 200 Vermont towns have taken part in the 16 years of this program. Vermont Reads recently announced that its 2018 selection is Paterson's "Bread and Roses, Too."

Published in 2006, "Bread and Roses, Too" is a work of historical fiction directed at the young adult reader. 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 and launched a strike that lasted more than two months, drawing national and international attention.

The Governor called out the militia, pressing into service Harvard students who were excused from final exams in order to serve. Violence between the militia, the Lawrence Police, and the strikers resulted in several deaths. Union leaders from across the U.S. came to Lawrence, including Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, and financial and in-kind support was provided by unions across the country.

Paterson tells this story through the eyes of two Lawrence youngsters. Rosa is the middle child in an Italian family living in a third floor tenement apartment and sharing their one bedroom space with a Lithuanian family.

The other narrator is Jake Beale, a native born American-Irish youngster who works in a textile mill and delivers his weekly paycheck to his alcoholic father who beats him and neglects him as he is drinking himself to death. Paterson is known for her 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 so they won't be stolen.

The first part of the book tells the story of the strike which was triggered by the reduction in weekly hours from 56 to 54 for each worker resulting in a wage cut. The arrival of the Wobblies, the mounting violence of the police and militia, and the organizing efforts of the Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, and more than 40 other nationalities of immigrants are recounted through the eyes of Rosa and Jake as they struggle with the new realities of the strike.

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The second part of the book tells the story of 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 (actually 36, when you include the stowaway, Jake) were sent to Barre and welcomed by the Italian-American community of granite cutters there. Rosa lies to convince the authorities and her 'foster family,' the Gerbati's, that Jake is her brother, Salvatore. 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 swiftly moving plot, enough suspense to keep one turning the pages, and a well balanced mixture of history, social commentary, and fictional 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 a number of communities around the Green Mountain State.

There is a formal application process which calls for at least three community-based organizations (libraries, schools, historical societies, churches, bookstores, community social groups, etc) to organize together to file an application and then to distribute the books and hold programs 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 our children are issues that remain of primary 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 which are successful in receiving 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 another opportunity with a June 1, 2018 deadline. 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.

Katherine Paterson, the Vermont Humanities Council, and your town provide the means to return to our Vermont town meeting roots of spirited yet polite and civil engagement around important questions that affect all of us. Let's engage!

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


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