By Paisley Kandler ’22
While historical fiction is not typically a genre of book I endeavor to read, the following books stood out to me for their ability to relate historical events and time periods in a manner that connects with today. Between both, there is one major connection- a strong female character fighting to stand out within the constraints of the society she was born in.
“Audacity” by Melanie Crowder
Written in free verse poetry, “Audacity” tells the story of Clara Lemlich, a motivated Russian- Jewish woman who immigrates to America.
After fleeing Russia to avoid religious oppression, Clara and her family board a packed, sickly third-class boat to New York City. Once there, however, her dreams of getting a college education are cut short by the need to provide for her family. Clara, like many immigrant girls of her time, works in a Lower East Side sweatshop. The hours are grueling, the pay is far below minimum wage, and the girls are treated cruelly.
Clara tries to make do in her job without letting herself be pushed around, but she finds herself fired multiple times from numerous shops. She is expected to quietly get her work done with no argument, and after a string of standing up to her superiors and ending up without a career, she takes matters into her own hands.
Her extreme opposition to oppression leads Clara to stand up for all the mistreated women in factory jobs. She unionizes them and comes to lead what is known as the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909. After 20,000 women march in protest against their terribly unfit work conditions, the voices of the impoverished Jewish women finally come to the surface to leave their mark.
While Clara was not a fictitious person, this story is very loosely based upon the true events of her life, as little was recorded of her time in Russia nor her verbatim thoughts of her time working in the sweatshops.
Crowder’s poetry beautifully demonstrates how burdensome the life of an immigrant woman would have been in early 20th-century New York City with emotion, but does not forget the importance of Clara’s journey along the way. The morals of self-motivation and strength are ever-present throughout the book and make for a truly powerful and inspiring read.
“Outrun the Moon” by Stacey Lee
Set on the opposite of the country, “Outrun the Moon” is written from the perspective of a Chinese girl growing up in early 20th-century San Francisco, and how the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake effects her life.
Mercy Wong is 15 years old and lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Though she comes from a family whose only money comes from fortune-telling and washing clothes, she is determined to make a difference in the world as an entrepreneur. Through pure spirit, shrewdness and strong will, Mercy is able to get an education at the elite St. Clare’s School for Girls, where she believes her pathway to opportunity lies.
However, being Chinese in a school prejudiced against anyone without wealth and European descent makes Mercy somewhat of an outsider. As she continues her three-year scholarship gained by aiding the country’s wealthiest chocolatier, Mercy hopes to overcome the other girls’ distrust of her background.
Her education at St. Clare’s falls short when the infamous 1906 earthquake devastates San Francisco and the lives of thousands. In the time following the destruction of the earthquake, Mercy realizes that the biggest difference she can make in the world is aiding those in need.
One of the greatest themes of this novel is how the protagonist is able to grow in such a short period of distress. Mercy has her life completely planned out, yet she still stops to help the immigrants of the city and the girls of St. Clare’s.
The other great element of “Outrun the Moon” is its vivid scenery. Though a fictional story, the entirety of San Francisco is vividly re-imagined. From the pungent flavors and packed streetways of Mercy’s Chinatown to the crisp, pretentious nature of St. Clare’s to post-earthquake San Francisco, the strong setting helps set appropriate ambiances to Mercy’s story.
Much like “Audacity”, Mercy’s story is inspiring in her ability to persevere and prosper for herself and others in a way that helps her rise to become someone more.