In which I continue my thoughts about re-reading books that I loved when I was younger, and share my thoughts on Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
Hello everyone! In part one of this series, I discussed the fact that, while I am a re-reader, I do have some apprehension when it comes to re-reading a book that I enjoyed when I was a lot younger, and haven’t read since. I then talked about my recent experience with re-reading Code Orange, by Caroline B. Cooney.
Today, I’m going to talk about the book that I re-read after that one went so well: Uprising, by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
I don’t know where I first learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Perhaps in a documentary. Something about it really refused to let go of my mind. It was a pretty horrific event—if you’ve never heard of it, I would urge you to do a little research, but, in brief: on March 25, 1911, a fire started in a factory that made shirtwaists. A shirtwaist was kind of a blouse that would be worn with a long skirt. They were practical and affordable for working girls, and very popular in the Edwardian period. If you do a google image search for “shirtwaists”, you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about, and you’ll also get horrifying images from the fire before you’ve scrolled very far.
The fire started on the 8th floor, where they cut the fabric (no one knows exactly how, but it was likely from a cigarette), and spread extremely quickly. Without going into too much detail (because I’d encourage you to do your own research if you’re curious), the factory was not prepared with safety features to stop a fire or ensure the safety of the workers in the event of a fire. Although the fire started on the 8th floor, the people who were in real trouble were the girls on the 9th floor. Before any kind of warning could reach them, the fire did. Although some made it out thanks to the heroic elevator operators, or because they chose to go up to the roof rather than try to get to the ground, most of the girls were faced with an unthinkable choice: jump or burn. All told, 146 died that day, nearly all young immigrant girls.
After learning about that fire, I couldn’t put it out of my mind, so I did what I always did back then (and sometimes still do today): I went to my library and read everything they had on the subject. One of the things I read was this book.
I really loved it at the time: it was a multiple POV novel, which I’m always in love with, and of course it was historical fiction, and it had some really likeable characters. And it made me cry.
I only read it that one time, despite how much I enjoyed it. There have been a few times when I thought I would purchase it and re-read it, but they never had it at any of the bookstores I checked (why couldn’t I order it online? I don’t know; that almost never occurs to me). Finally, I asked them if they could order it for me at Barnes and Noble, and they did. So on Thursday, I picked it up, started reading it, and finished it that night.
Before I get into my thoughts, I’d like to say that this novel is too short, but that is as it should be. Part of the tragedy of this story is its brevity. (I’m not spoiling anything; obviously it’s a tragedy when it’s about the event that I just described to you.) Page 4 says this:
“We did not know one another for long,” Mrs. Livingston says. “We had so little time.”
Now, did I like it as much as I did the first time I read it? I suppose so. I sacrificed sleep to stay up past midnight so that I could finish it. The fact that I couldn’t put it down or escape from that world until the last page certainly speaks volumes.
So yes, I did enjoy it. But I was also much more aware of its flaws. I’ll talk about the good stuff first.
Haddix handles characterisation expertly in this novel. All three main characters: Bella, Yetta, and Jane, felt very real and fleshed out, which is always important, but especially so in a book like this. We learn in chapter 1 that “Mrs. Livingston” is the only one of the three girls to survive the fire, and we don’t know which one of the girls she is. So, for the maximum emotional impact, it’s vital that we care about all of these characters equally, even though we are aware all the time that only one will make it out alive.
Other things that were great:
Historical facts were woven in very well.
A great job was done of showing how the fire fit into the larger context of the time, and I like how the bulk of the book was about the strikes that happened just before the fire.
The (somewhat unlikely) friendship between Bella, Yetta, and Jane was very touching and well-written.
I laughed so hard when Bella couldn’t figure out why Jane couldn’t understand the “English” she had learned from listening to the other girls in the factory, and then it turns out she is actually speaking Yiddish. One of my favourite sentences of all time:
“I don’t even know what Yiddish is,” she said, in Yiddish.
And finally, (this is a semi-kind-of-not-really spoiler even though I’m not going to reveal any details, but avert your eyes and scroll down to the next heading if you’re concerned)
THE FACT THAT MY SHIP SOMEHOW UNEXPECTEDLY AGAINST ALL ODDS SAILED IN THE END!!!!!
I really didn’t think it was ever going to happen. It was such a pleasant surprise.
Last time, my “but” was a positive one. This time, not so much.
It’s great to have opinions. This blog is basically just me yelling about my opinions. And it’s fine to have a message in your book. But there’s also something called propaganda. And no one likes that, especially not when you’re reading a novel for the purpose of entertainment.
A lot of Jane’s POV felt uncomfortably like propaganda. I don’t want to get into too much detail and go into spoiler territory, but there were a lot of cardboard, one-dimensional characters who were just there to make a point, a lot of presenting things in a very slanted manner, and even times when I felt almost explicitly told how to feel. I don’t like that.
The other issue (which was minor) is that the book, in glorifying independence, veers a little too close to glorifying poverty. Conditions for the poor in New York in the 19th and early 20th centuries were absolutely horrifying. If you doubt me, go read How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, or at least look at the pictures. Because, I had a basic idea, of course, that one wouldn’t want to live in the slums of that time period, but Riis’s book filled in the details of why I wouldn’t want to live in the slums of that time period.
And for the most part, Uprising does a good job of depicting these terrible conditions. But there were just a couple of times where I felt like things were softened and tidied a little. And that’s no good, especially because it goes against some of the main points this novel was trying to make.
Also, a lot of things at things in the ending seemed a little too convenient. I don’t like an ending that’s wrapped up and presented to me with a bow on it. It was all very nice, and I’m happy for the characters, but some of it seemed improbable, rather than a natural unfolding.
Other Than That
I really enjoyed this book. It didn’t make me cry this time, but it was very well-written, the characters were likeable (mostly—I have trouble deciding how I feel about Jane, but I LOVE Bella, Yetta, Rocco, and Mr. Corrigan) and well-developed, the setting was vivid, the portion that dealt with the fire elicited all of the proper emotions, and all in all I would probably give it a 3.95/5.
I’d definitely recommend it if you like historical fiction. It’s not a very long or challenging read, but it’s very bittersweet and has some very nice moments in it, as well as some very heartbreaking ones.
And that’s all I have to say about that. Let me know if you’ve read this book; I haven’t come across very many people that have.
Have a lovely day!