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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Audacity, written by Melanie Crowder. Philomel Books, Penguin. 2015. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"I had a pole of my own;
I ran through the meadow
free as a bird
swinging a string of fish
behind me

before all this business
of being a woman
took over."

There is so much I love about this book! I love learning more about an incredibly brave and yes, audacious, woman whose name I had not heard, and whose story I did not know. I love (as you know) the way a gifted author can give such both a fierce and sorrowful account of a woman's life in poetic verse, using words that are spare and perfect. I love that I cannot walk away from the reading without a feeling of wanting to do something that matters. I am certain that I could not have done what Clara did:

"We work until we cannot
and still
it is not enough.

No man here
has the luxury of studying Torah
instead of working
if he wants his children to eat.
All my hard work
goes to pay
for a way of life
that is impossible here.

I bite my tongue to keep
from calling down
my own father."

Clara's father and brothers spend their days studying Torah. It is their life's work, while Clara and her mother do all of the work that needs doing. Clara knows early on that she does not want the life her mother is living.

"How can I tell Mama
who toils
to sundown
to be a good mother
         a good wife
that this life
               (her) life
is not enough for me,
that I dream instead
of words
a life that stretches far beyond
the bounds of this shtetl?"

When the family flees Russia in the early twentieth century and arrives in New York, Clara goes to work to support them. She works in the garment industry where jobs are easy to find, pay is paltry, and conditions atrocious. Clara is clearly more indignant about the way young women are treated, and will not just accept this job as her lot in life. She struggles to learn English at night school and to get an education. During the day, she tries to encourage her co-workers to form a women's union to demand improved working conditions. She struggles to have a female voice heard in the already established male-dominated unions. She faces being fired from one sweatshop after another for her stance, multiple beatings, bullying, hospitalization, ignorance, even being thrown in jail; she never gives up. What she does give up is her dream to be a doctor, as she cannot abandon the young women whose lives are so hopeless. She is an amazing woman who encourages each one of us, after reading her story, to work to make the world better.

"All my life
I have been taught
a daughter should be good,
That is one thing
I have never been.

But I have also been taught
                                        to give
without the thought
of ever getting back;
to ease the suffering of others.


                     I think
                     I will be doing
                                               the rest of my life."

Ms. Crowder's storytelling is impeccable. She captures the essence of her character, giving her a strong voice and an unflagging spirit. If you can walk away from reading this book without wanting to know much more about Clara Lemlich, I will be very surprised. If you are not clearly impressed with her unwavering fight for justice for women, I will also be very surprised. She was an unstoppable force, as is shared in an interview with her family in back matter. Also included there is an historical note, a  glossary of terms and a list of selected resources.

Bravo, Clara! Bravo, Melanie Crowder!

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