Saturday, September 6, 2008

"Counting on Grace" by Elizabeth Winthrop

Here I am at the ripe old age of 40 and I had "homework" last weekend, namely, reading this book. Our library has partnered with some other organizations to put on a Community Reading event; the goal is to get everyone in our county to read this book, Counting on Grace. It was chosen because it's about mill life and it's written for a juvenile level, a good thing considering that we do have a lot of people around this area that don't read all that well. As a branch supervisor, I was, shall we say, strongly encouraged to read this before the event. Sigh. Homework.

Except I should have remembered that I usually ended up liking what was assigned to me in school. LOL! This turned out to be a very well written, and interesting, little book. 12 year old Grace is the heroine of the story. She lives in Vermont and pretty much her whole family works in the textile mill in town; her father is recovering from an injury and her grandfather is too feeble in the mind to work there. Her mother and older sister are the breadwinners in the family, if you can call them that - they owe a good bit of money to the mill-owned store in town. Grace is a student at the mill-run school when the book opens. She and her friend Arthur are the teacher's best students; they both read and write fairly well, and they're both coming along in math. But things turn sour in a hurry - Arthur must go work at the mill due to his father's death. If you live in the mill village, all healthy, able-bodied family members must work at the mill, or you have to move out of the housing that's made available to you. Not entirely fair, but that's how it was back in those days. Grace is sent to the mill, too, greatly saddening her teacher.

Enter the teacher's plan to get her star pupils back into the classroom. Even though her salary is paid by the mill, Miss Lesley knows that the mill is in violation of the newly enacted Child Labor Law. Grace and Arthur shouldn't be in the mill - they're too young. She enlists Arthur's help to write a letter to Lewis Hine, a photographer, in the hopes that something can be done for her students. While they're waiting for a response, Arthur and Grace go to "classes" on Sunday after church. In fact, Grace learns to do math well enough that she starts checking the figures for her family's purchases at the mill store; seems it also wasn't uncommon for the store manager to cheat the customers. Grace gets good enough at this that several of the townspeople ask her to check their bills, too. Needless to say, this doesn't make life any easier for Grace or her family.

When Lewis Hine arrives, he brings along a camera and says he's just taking pictures of the looms and such. He asks Grace to stand in front of a machine so that there will be a sense of size; the machines are very large and Grace is small, being a young girl. When Grace realizes who Mr. Hine is and why he's really there, she gathers the other children for more photos. Will Grace be able to go back to school? Will Arthur be a famous author? Will Miss Lesley be successful in getting the mill to follow the Child Labor Laws?

Not having grown up in North Carolina, I'm not overly familiar with "mill life". I've heard people talk about it, of course, and I know a little bit just because I live here. But I don't have parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents who worked in the textile industry. I'm pretty sure there hasn't been anyone in my family who had to leave school who didn't want to leave (I'm not sure any of us have left - we're kinda geeky that way!) So Grace's story was interesting to me, not only the descriptions of the inner workings of the mill itself, but the whole "mill village" set-up. I can't imagine being that dependent on my employer; they got EVERYTHING from them, wages, housing, store credit, etc. But it's a double-edged sword, as is evidenced by a family being told that they have to leave immediately when one member can't work in the mill anymore. How scary! I'm glad I read this book, and I'm even more glad that I can recommend it to the people in our Community Reads project. See, it pays to do your homework!

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