Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Good Old Days weren't all that good

Bowery Girl by Kim Taylor
5Q 3P J/S

Another post brought over from my old LJ blog. Not everyone would agree that this book is appropriate for junior high school kids, but I think most eighth graders can handle the harshness and grim realities it presents.

I hope the fact that this is historical fiction doesn't keep teens from reading it. This is a book that immerses you in the sights, smells, and feel of a different time. I was a little surprised at the sometimes-rough language, but it's entirely appropriate to the lives these girls live.

It's February, 1883, and Mollie Flynn is on her way to The Tombs. Her roommate, Annabelle Lee, is finally being released from prison after serving her sentence for prostitution. Mollie is thrilled to see her, but she's not thrilled about Annabelle's condition: pregnant. How can a pregnant prostitute make any money? And Mollie and Annabelle need money, more than Mollie can make alone with her pickpocketing skills, good as they are. Their apartment isn't much, just one small room without running water or a toilet. But it's theirs. They've been homeless before, and Mollie is damned if they're going to be homeless again. So she's been borrowing money from Tommy, Annabelle's pimp/lover. How will they earn the $20 they owe him (an enormous sum in those days)? Life soon settles back pretty much to normal. Annabelle isn't showing much yet, so she still gets a few customers. Mollie picks a few pockets. They hang out at the saloon with Tommy, Seamus, Mugs, and Hugh, drinking beer mixed with benzene and getting mixed up in brawls with rival gangs. They watch the rat fights. They watch the Brooklyn Bridge being built and dream of making enough money to move to Brooklyn one day. They try to survive.

Life in the Bowery is dirty, rough, and backbreakingly hard. Forget trying to move up in the world. This was a time when most people who had money felt that those who didn't had nobody to blame but themselves for their condition. They didn't work hard enough. They were immoral and therefore deserved to live a wretched life. They were shiftless, lazy, and Irish (or Jewish, or Polish, or some other ethnic group), so what could you expect from "them"? But this was also the time when the idea of social work was just beginning, and there were some people, often women, who started settlement houses that were designed to give the poor and the immigrants skills that would enable them to make money without resorting to thievery, prostitution, gambling, and other criminal pursuits. The houses offered job training, gave basic education (reading, writing, math), hygiene classes, and tried to give their clients the tools they needed to make a better life for themselves.

For Mollie, when Emmeline DuPre opens her settlement house, it's a threat. What does this do-gooder want? Why can't she go away and leave them alone? Mollie doesn't want her charity, and she doesn't want to be beholden to anyone. But Annabelle doesn't feel the same way. She wants to learn to read, and she wants something better for herself and her baby. Because Annabelle begins to go to the settlement house, so does Mollie. While Annabelle learns to read and write, Mollie begins to learn to type. Maybe she can get a job as a typist and earn an honest $3 a week. Mollie laughs at the thought. She can make $3 a day, when the pickings are good, and Annabelle could make more than that. But then Mollie, who still owes Tommy that $20, gets involved in a robbery gone horribly wrong. Suddenly the honest $3 a week and the safety of the settlement house begins to sound a lot better.

Life in 1883 was hard, and this book reflects that. It doesn't end with Mollie and Annabelle and the baby in a cozy little Brooklyn apartment, looking forward to the wonderful life now ahead of them. It's more realistic than that. It left me thinking about Mollie and Annabelle and wondering what life was like for my own relatives, who also lived in New York about this time period. (Fortunately, I don't think any of them ever had to resort to things Mollie and Annabelle and the gang resort to.)

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