Monday, April 13, 2015

Audacity by Melanie Crowder

Living with her mother, father and three brothers in a shtetl in Russia, young Clara Lemlich's great desire is to go to school and get an education.  But in her strict Orthodox Jewish family, education is limited to her brothers, who will follow in the footsteps of their father, praying and studying the Torah.  But Clara has learned to read Russian against her father's wishes, and even after he destroys her few hard won books, she doesn't give up.

After the pogrom of 1903 against the Jews in nearby shtetls, the Lemlichs decide to emigrate to the United States.  It is a long, harrowing trip, but eventually they arrive in New York City and make their way to a small dingy apartment on the Lower East Side.  Day after day, her mother goes out looking for work, while her husband and sons spend their times praying and studying.  Finally, her father decides that Clara shall be the one who goes out to work.

Finding a job in a sweatshop making shirtwaists at $6.00 a week, she brings home the family's only income.  The work is harsh, under grueling circumstances, with row upon row of women and children sewing in a locked room, only allowed to go to the restroom twice a day despite the long hours.  And at the end of the day, the girls and women are inappropriately patted down to make sure they haven't stolen anything.  But Clara also discovers public libraries and the free school, and her hope of going to school revived.

After getting fired from her first job, her second job pays less and the workdays are longer.  More harsh conditions and more abuse from the sweatshop owners, foreman.  Once day, Clara hears the word union and, after learning what it means, decides the women she works with in the garment industry also need a union to represent them, just as the men, who are treated differently, have.

Little does Clara realize what forming a union will involve.   Her dream to go to school and become a doctor is given up in her fight for better working conditions for the women in the garment industry.  To that end, she is spit on, locked out of jobs that she needs, she's beaten repeatedly by thugs and by the police, she's jailed and hospitalized, but she never stops, never gives up.   To say that Clara was a young woman who had a definite streak of defiance and a very strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, is to say the least about her.  And she succeeds!

Audacity is a imagine fictional portrayal of the early life of Clara Lemlich.  Written in beautiful free verse, it is the story of a small, but fearless, and yes, audacious fighter.  Told from Clara's point of view in the first person, the reader is privy to her hopes, dreams, thoughts, fears, especially telling is her anger at her father for denying her an education, for not working when the family is so destitute.

Free verse novels can look deceptively simple, and they are wonderful enticements for reluctant readers, but make no mistake, the content is not so much complicated as it is far more thought provoking than you might at first think it is.

One of my favorite books from 2013 is Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 (which happens to be the end point of Audacity), a picture book for older readers, and as I read Audacity, I had flashes of the illustration from this book.  So although Audacity is a book meant for teens, it could be nicely paired with Brave Girl.

Melanie Crowder has written a spellbinding story, full of historical and cultural references that make it an eminently readable full-bodied novel and a source of inspiration.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book is a ARC received from the publisher, Philomel Books

If you are ever in New York City and want to see what life was life for immigrants living on the Lower East Side like the Lemlich family, be sure to visit The Tenement Museum


  1. I am looking for a free verse to read and this title just caught me. Hope to find a copy soon!

    1. I hope so, it is such an interesting novel.

  2. Hello Alex, I’ve just added The Tenement Museum to my must-visit list and Audacity to my must-read list. You find the best books and the most interesting places. Thank you, Barbara.

    1. Do you think you will ever visit NYC? That would be great. Meanwhile, Audacity is wonderful.

  3. Some covers just blow me away with profoundness through simplicity.


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