Seamstresses Rosie, a Jewish girl from Russia, and Maria, a Catholic girl from Italy, are sent to New York to financially assist their families. Their individual stories run parallel until eventually the two girls meet. They become best friends, united by their concern about the working conditions of female workers in the garment industry. Excitable Maria becomes a powerful speaker for the unions; Rosie wishes to be like her friend but speaking in public terrifies her. Instead, she works tirelessly in quiet ways to help fellow immigrants and fellow workers.
Very cleverly, we follow the development of the girls’ identities in this new land. How they coped with the freedoms they never would have known in their home countries. How they managed their money. How they found work and friends. The entertainments they enjoyed. All is very skilfully portrayed through the eyes of the girls and their friends.
The author paints a vivid picture of the unsafe and abusive conditions suffered by workers in pre–union days, told through the eyes and experiences of the two young women. The description of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire (when 146 people died) is terrifying and deeply moving. The historical details never intrude but a skilfully woven into the story, and the fictional central characters are well-developed and believable.
It’s a powerful story and reminds us not to take for granted the freedoms and safety standards we now expect as of right. Very well researched and a gripping page-turner. I highly recommend it.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Robyn Pearce