Audacity by Melanie Crowder

I love browsing the new release shelves at my local library. I often request books through the library network, but the new release shelves are a great place to find books that might not have been on my radar. This is where I found Audacity, a book of free verse poetry for young adults by Melanie Crowder.

Audacity is a fictionalization of Clara Lemlich’s life. The story begins at the beginning of the 20th century in the Pale of Settlement, the portion of Russian land in which Jewish families are allowed to live. While Clara’s father and brothers devote their days to studying the Torah, Clara secretly learns Russian. She has always had a love for learning, and Russian unlocks a world of literature and learning that is not accessible via her native Yiddish. When her father discovers her Russian books, he burns them. When the Russians burn down their village in a pogrom, the family makes their way to America.

Once they settle in New York City, Clara’s father and brothers continue to devote their days to studying, and it is up to Clara to find a job. She is shocked by the deplorable conditions in the factories: the workers are locked in, they don’t have access to a bathroom except during their short breaks, and the foremen often have wandering hands.

Clara knows that they all deserve better, but she doesn’t know how to achieve that goal. When Clara attends a union meeting, the men don’t take her seriously. Over the course of the book, Clara relentlessly fights for fair conditions for workers. She is beaten and jailed, but she will not be deterred. Her story is so inspirational, and it is amazing to realize that these events are only slightly more than one hundred years old.

I am accustomed to reading prose, but Crowder’s free verse absolutely blew me away. She captures the immigrant experience with sights and smells, and shows the reader the horrors of the factories. Clara’s interactions are fictionalized, but they are accurate for the time period. Clara burns with outrage when her father and brothers continue to study; this is no longer the Old World- why can’t they get jobs? Why must the responsibility fall on her shoulders? Clara’s parents are outraged by her behavior. They don’t want her to go to night school to learn English, and they don’t understand why she would subject herself to such dangers in her fight for equality. Even with a lack of support, Clara cannot be deterred. She is not just fighting for herself, but for all the girls who spend their days in the factories.

I would absolutely recommend Audacity. This is a story that transcends the young adult label and would also appeal to adult readers as well. I checked this book out from the library, but I will be looking into getting a copy for my girls. They are a little young for the story right now, but their ancestors on my husband’s side share a similar immigration story with Clara. They also lived on the Lower East Side and some of them even worked in factories. Audacity is inspirational, and it is unforgettable.

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