Good Sunday, everyone! I'm happy to report that I've finally finished another book. 2009 is off to a slow start, but at least the quality has been good so far even if my numbers are dreadful.
This semester I'm taking a course for my library degree called History of Youth Services. The class focuses largely on issues of history and ethnography, and less than a week in I'm already having a great time. Lyddie, by Katherine Paterson, is a required read for the course, and I could not be happier about it! I've long been aware of Paterson's better known books, Jacob Have I Loved and Bridge to Terabithia. Unfortunately, I've never taken the plunge and picked them up, though after Lyddie, I'm sure I will.
In 1843, Lydia Worthen is essentially the mother to her family: her mentally unstable mother, her hardworking brother, and her younger sisters. They owe debts on their farm, and it seems as if their father will never return. As a result, Lyddie's mother hires her out as a housemaid and her brother Charles goes to a local miller. Before too long, Lyddie finds herself in a precarious situation--fired from her position as housemaid and off to Lowell, Massachusetts to work long hours in a dirty, dangerous textile factory. While the wages and her endless work ethic allow her to save money toward the farm debt, the danger of disease, injury, exhaustion, and greed hover around every corner. The bright spot in all of the dark are Lyddie's new friends, her newfound ability to read, and her drive to provide for her family and eventually return to them.
It's been a really long time since I've read any historical fiction, especially historical fiction for children, and I was delighted to visit this particular time period, as I found the setting, the characters, and information about the mill conditions and rising movement for fair work and wages really interesting and involving. Lyddie is a great character--strong, hard-headed, intelligent, and resourceful. She's not without her faults, certainly, and that makes her all the more memorable. There are more than a few times when all the money she's saving goes to her head and she loses sight of her ultimate purpose.
Paterson's writing is elegant. Truly beautiful. One of my favorite passages comes shortly after Lyddie's first days in the Lowell mills. One of her roommates reads Oliver Twist aloud to her, and she becomes completely involved in the tale.
Tonight after supper, Betsy would read to her again. She was, of course, afraid for Oliver, who was all mixed up in her mind with Charlie. But there was a delicious anticipation, like molded sugar on her tongue. She had to know what would happen to him, how his story would unfold. [...] She didn't quite know how to explain to anyone, that is wasn't so much that she had gotten used to the mill, but she had found a way to escape its grasp. The pasted sheets of poetry or Scripture in the window frames, the geraniums on the sill, those must be some other girl's way, she decided. But hers was a story.
As a result of her new obsession, she begins to copy passages out of the book and paste them to her loom to study as she works through the long hours in the mill. Books keep her company and allow her to escape the drudgery of her everyday life.
Lyddie was a sweeping kind of story that kept me feeling a little anxious and on edge the whole time I was reading it, and it's been far too long since I've felt that way about a book! I have a feeling another one of Paterson's novels might fall into my library bag the next time I go.
What historical children's fiction have you read that you loved? It never hurts to have another couple (hundred) recommendations for the wishlist!