CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 6. . . .October 9, 2015
44 Hours or Strike!
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2015.
135 pp., trade pbk. & epub, $11.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-927583-76-0 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-927583-77-7 (epub).
Strikes and lockouts-Clothing trade-Ontario-Toronto-History-Juvenile fiction.
Women clothing workers-Ontario-Toronto-History-Juvenile fiction.
Women’s rights -Ontario-Toronto-History-Juvenile fiction.
Employee rights-Ontario-Toronto-History-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.
Review by Ruth Latta.
"Fellow workers, I want to tell you what I went through in jail." Rose shuddered. "Actually, I'm trying to forget the whole experience. But one thing I know for sure...We must all stick together. Our only hope for success lies in unity. Otherwise we will fail. And then we'll be back where we started - maybe even worse off - with long hours, terrible working conditions and low pay...And without a strong union to support us."
In 44 Hours or Strike!, Anne Dublin has created a well-paced dramatic story tracing the fortunes from February to May 1931 of two teenaged sisters, seamstresses in a Toronto garment factory in the 1930s. The Abramson sisters, Rose, 16, and Sophie, 14, are daughters of Russian Jewish immigrants.
In an historical note, Dublin succinctly summarizes the repressive nature of the Czarist Russian empire. She mentions the rise of workers' political movements and trade unions and the mass emigration to North American when ocean travel became easier.
"I came to Canada to make a living," their papa said. "Back in Russia it was impossible. We Jews couldn't move from one place to another. We were stuck like mice in a hole...In Toronto I may always be a pauper, but at least I'll be a free one."
Mr. Abramson, a presser in a clothing factory, worked twelve-hour days six days a week with "Sunday off for good behaviour." Then he was laid off and died of tuberculosis. His teenaged daughters had to drop out of school to support themselves and their mother.
The novel is presented in the third person, mostly through the points of view of Rose and Sophie, and, to a lesser extent, through a newsboy, Jake Malone. As the novel opens, Sophie, new to factory work, is leaving, exhausted, with her sister, to attend a meeting of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).
During the 1930s, the ILGWU (as Dublin explains in an end note) was on a drive to organize Canadian workers in the clothing manufacturing industry, most of whom were women and many of whom were Jewish. The debate at the union meeting over whether or not to strike is dramatic and captivating. Bernard Shane of the New York ILGWU (an historic figure) addresses the meeting. Through him, Dublin presents the union's objectives clearly in a vocabulary suited to young readers; it wanted a 44 hour week, a 15% increase in wages, and the right to bargain on behalf of all the workers. The author also makes it clear that the decision to strike was not made lightly. Few of the workers have much money saved, and there is no iron-clad guarantee that other sympathetic unions can give them enough financial aid to see them through to victory. As one girl comments: "You can't eat moral support."
Dublin conveys the attitudes of the era by showing bystanders' reactions when the workers on the picket lines. Some people ask them why they are striking when so many people are looking for jobs. Someone calls the women "a bunch of Commie Jews", and several men shout, "Go back to the kitchen."
The story continues at a fast, engaging pace. Rose is on the picket line beside another worker, Becky, who confronts a fortyish woman, Kathleen, who tries to cross the picket line and go back to work. Their heated exchange shows readers the tough choices workers faced. Kathleen is desperate to feed her family while Becky's priority is improved working conditions. A scuffle breaks out, the cops come, and Becky and Rose are arrested. The Mercer Reformatory, to which Rose is sentenced for a month, was a real place, and a photograph of this grim building is one of the 15 photographs that illustrate the novel. (The pictures include a seamstress operating an industrial Singer sewing machine, an ILGWU union label, and a group of pretty strikers on a picket line.)
The novel's main theme is the way the strike matured the Abramsons. At the beginning, they are all grieving for Papa, struggling to make ends meet, regretful over lost opportunities for education and worried about the economic outlook. Mama is ill with something debilitating but undiagnosed. By the end of the novel, their finances have improved slightly and, having struggled against adversity, they feel stronger. The mother, for example, suffers a fall on ice and is taken to Mount Sinai Hospital where she is diagnosed with a peptic ulcer, a condition that can improve with dietary changes. Her hospital experience leads her to apply for a job as a cook in the hospital kitchen.
Rose's prison experience is harrowing. During her month in Mercer, she has no visitors (as Sophie is deemed by the authorities too young to visit, and Mama is in hospital), and does not receive their letters. She emerges silent and withdrawn, feeling "unclean" and "damaged" after being sexually abused by a female correctional officer. Later, however, she summons up the courage to address a union meeting and bolster the workers' flagging spirits.
Home alone, Sophie visits her mother in hospital, pickets the factory and becomes friends with Jake Malone who rescues her when she is knocked down in an altercation and sympathizes with the striking workers. Their tenuous friendship, however, is nipped in the bud when Rose and her mother return home. Mama says: "As long as you live in my house you will not go out with goyim." Sophie considers seeing Jake on the sly and imagines an ideal world in which they could be together, but decides that "right here, right now", she must stick with her mother and sister and abide by their wishes.
At first, I thought Jake was created to provide love interest, but actually his function is to
show the great gulf between Jews and non-Jews in this place and time. The conflict between Kathleen and Becky on the picket line also shows this gulf. Kathleen claims that the union supporters "never cared about us English workers" before the strike. "Your meetings are in Yiddish so we can't understand what is going on, and all the big shots in the union are Jewish too... If you cared about us at all... you would have included us more."
44 Hours or Strike! ends with a reaffirmation of family ties and a partial union victory, but no friendship between Jake and Sophie's family and no impression of solidarity between the "English" workers and the Jewish ones. This ending, while it may well be realistic, is uninspiring. Those of us who like a story in which people of various ethnicities and religions transcend their differences to band together for a worthy cause will have to read a different book.
For information about Ruth Latta's books, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com. An Ottawa, ON, resident, Ruth is working on an historical novel for young adults.
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