Audacity

Philomel Books (Penguin Young Readers)  2015

 

In Audacity, Melanie Crowder tells Clara’s story, a sweeping tale that begins with a childhood battling poverty and anti-Semitism in the Pale of Settlement and ends with an adolescence fighting for the rights of sweat­shop workers on the picket lines of New York City.

Crowder’s audacious protagonist is based on Clara Lemlich, a Russian-Jewish girl who immigrated to New York at the turn of the twentieth century and devoted herself to the labor fight after experiencing the hor­rendous conditions and sexism of New York’s sweatshops. Lemlich was one of the main leaders of the Uprising of the 20,000, which remains the largest strike by women in American history. Crowder uses verse to tell this story; Audacity is broken up into individual page-long poems. Although this sometimes keeps the reader from gaining a full sense of the timeline or details of the story, it ulti­mately allows the novel to move along quickly while touching on all of Clara’s adventures and hardships.

Clara is a tenacious and nuanced character. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, and teaches herself to read and write Russian, Yiddish, and English. Brought up as the only girl in a very religious family, she cobbles to­gether her education in secret. Clara struggles with the balance between supporting her family, fighting for her dream of attending college, and working tirelessly for the rights of immigrant women workers across the city. As she says repeatedly in Crowder’s poems, “I am not so good at being a good girl.” Crowder seamlessly ties lessons on feminism and perseverance into her swift-moving poems.

Audacity is an exciting new novel recom­mended for ages 12 and up. It should be noted that there are many violent scenes in the book, including descriptions of pogroms in Europe and police brutality on the picket lines. Crowder has written a work of historical fiction that brings readers into the mind of Clara as she observes the world around her with unflinching honesty, empathy, and most of all, audacity.


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