It is the peak of immigration in New York City, at the dawn of the twentieth century. Shouts in dozens of languages whoop through the air and smells from every dish imaginable waft through the streets of the Lower East Side. Tenements, rickety but home, climb the sky, fire escapes snaking down. The streets are crowded with pushcarts and calls. Thus is the setting for The Uprising, by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
Bella is a young immigrant girl, fresh from Italy and weighted with the daunting task of providing for her family overseas. She is lucky to find a job, though the hours spent hunched over a sewing machine in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory are not quite what she expected.
Yetta has worked at Triangle for months. She lives with her equally rebellious elder sister, and, like Bella, sends most of her earnings home to her family in Russia. She is lively with life and pulsing with her want to change the world, to mean something, to matter. She wants women’s rights and safer conditions at work, shorter hours and higher wages. She is determined and fiery, willing to stand for months in the blistering heat and shivering cold, holding a picket sign and striking for union recognition in factories. Yetta is spirited and intense, gladly giving every bit of herself to her cause.
Jane, lastly, is a society girl with an intellectual spark. She is curious and compassionate, spending time with strikers and at rallies for no gain of her own, and finds herself swept up into this passionate world of striking and working and wanting and hoping. There is more to feel, she finds, outside of her ignorant, sheltered life. And these ardent factory girls so desperate for their cause accept her and love her—she finds a place with them that she cannot find at home.
Uprising is the story of these three girls. It is inspiring and adrenalizing (if that was not previously a word, I now deem it one), making me want to jump up and devote myself to a cause with all of my everything. On the other hand, the book does such a good job of enticing the readers into the world it creates, that it runs the risk of romanticizing poverty to some extent.
However, all in all, I love the way the book was crafted. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory looms ahead for the entire novel. Right from the first chapter, we learn that two of the three best friends will die in the fire, though we do not know which ones they will be. This sets up an interesting dynamic--as I would read and get to know each character better, I would start to root for her to survive, before realizing, dismayed, that the other two would have to perish. It gave the book momentum and a reason for me to keep reading at the few moments the plot lagged.
Furthermore, the author was very skilled at weaving fiction and fact together, creating a story that haunts and perplexes, makes you think about the world and what you can do to change it, but also makes you care deeply for the three main characters. She succeeded in bringing life to a tragedy that occurred almost a hundred years ago. In making us care not only for the girls who died, but for the factory owners and the workers who survived as well. In painting a horrifying picture of flame and sky and the impossible choice—to jump or to burn? In making readers understand that if we want change to we have to fight for it, as the shirtwaist girls did in their months-long strike. The author wrote the story to make us understand what it was like to be a factory girl in 1911, with holes in her boots and tears in her dress and the incredible desire to change the world. The author wrote the story to give insight into life a century ago, to teach us to fight and question, and to warn us of the modern-day tragedies, today’s equivalents of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, that are waiting to happen unless we decide to fight for change.
All written content copyright '08 3EvilCousins except where noted. All posts and reviews are copyrighted by their respective authors. Illustrations copyright '08 MJManning All Rights Reserved, permission to reprint may be granted on request.