By Melanie Crowder. Philomel Books, 2015. 389 pages. $17.99/hardcover; $10.99/eBook or paperback (available in January). Recommended for young adults.
“I am not so good / at being a good girl. / In this country / where all are free / to speak / their minds / it is difficult / to say nothing.”
If keeping silent and living up to the cultural expectations of her traditional community is what constituted being a “good girl,” then Clara Lemlich was never going to be one. And the world is better for that.
Audacity is a young adult novel in verse that imagines only one small but very important part of the real-life story of Clara Lemlich (later Shavelson). The novel opens in 1903, when as a teen, Clara’s attempts at getting an education are already being obstructed at every turn. Her Jewish community won’t educate girls, and the local Russian public schools exclude her because she is Jewish. Her extremely conservative father refuses to allow her to speak or read Russian, and when he discovers her hidden collection of Russian books, he burns them. Such misfortune, along with the frequent instances of emotional and physical abuse he heaps upon her, fails to discourage what would be her lifelong passion for learning.
Eventually the Lemlich family is forced to flee after a pogrom—an organized massacre—results in the destruction of a nearby village. As was the experience of so many Jewish immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century, Clara’s family struggles to eke out an existence in New York City. Her father insists that her brothers must be free to pursue their studies, while Clara is expected to do piecework and tend to their home. With the family facing eviction and perhaps even starvation, Clara ends up alongside many of the other young Jewish immigrants of her generation: working in the garment district, suffering the low pay and other indignities involved in that difficult, sometimes dangerous work.
However, unlike most of her co-workers, Clara does not suffer these indignities lightly. She will not suffer them in shame and silence. Clara soon becomes one of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh—“fiery Jewish girls”—who battled the cruel, groping, cheating floor managers; the factory owners; the police; the media of the time; and even their fellow (mostly male) co-workers in their attempts to organize the women of the garment industry into a union. She continues to battle against the disapproval of her parents and somehow still finds a way to fulfill her desire to become educated. Along the way, Clara must make many difficult decisions, including whether or not she will literally risk her life to achieve her goals. And in the end, she will also make one of the most important speeches of the twentieth-century American labor movement.
Clara Lemlich would go on to lead a life of activism which I find inspiring. Her passion for women’s suffrage would get her fired. She organized a union for housewives in the 1930s. She remained active in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and later on protested against the rise of fascism and against the use of nuclear weapons. Along with other members of her family, she was targeted by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. She spoke out against the executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and aspects of American foreign policy. In her early 80s, she finally “retired” to a nursing home, where she promptly organized the orderlies there into a union. She died in 1982 at age 96.
None of that finds its way into this impressive novel, but what is here is still gripping. As with many novels in verse, not every line is truly lyrical, but the author does a wonderful job creating a distinctive personality and voice for her narrator. This is not just an important story that will educate young adult readers about a vital part of American history that is usually left out of their textbooks: the significance of the American labor movement and specifically the role that women played in shaping and driving that movement. This is, perhaps most crucially, a novel about finding your voice and learning to use it, and then using it some more even when the whole world seems united in telling you to sit down and be quiet. As a teacher of students who make up the target audience of this novel (middle school/junior high), I think the world needs more stories like this (we have enough YA novels about nerdy boys falling in mad love with “manic pixie dream girls,” thanks very much). My hope is that perhaps someone, maybe Crowder, will pick up where this novel leaves off and maybe someday soon present us with the rest of Clara Lemlich’s remarkable story, as “inspired by a true story” fiction or as a full-length biography for young readers.
Someone needs to.