Feminist Bibliothecary review of Papergirl

2019 is the one hundred year anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, an event that shook Canadian history. Papergirl by Melinda McCracken is due to be published by Roseway Publishing in April 2019 to acknowledge the memory of this historic event. McCracken originally wrote this middle-grade historical fiction novel about the event in the early eighties and has since passed away, but her daughter Molly McCracken has worked to get this novel published so that it would be available to the public, and Penelope Jackson assisted in updating the novel with research that was unavailable to McCracken in the 80s.

In 1919, working-class families in Winnipeg were facing many increased prices for common and necessary goods following the Great War and the influenza epidemic. Despite this, wages remained stagnant, and families were unable to provide for themselves despite working long hours in harsh conditions. This is the setting of McCracken’s Papergirl. Cassie is a ten-year-old girl in Winnipeg, living in a working class but comfortable family. Cassie is able to attend school and eat multiple meals a day because both her father and nineteen-year-old brother work as part of the police force in Winnipeg. Cassie’s best friend Mary is less privileged; although she attends school, her mother works long factory hours and they often don’t have enough to eat since Mary’s father passed away in the war. This is the reality of life in 1919 Winnipeg.

Papergirl follows Cassie as the strike in Winnipeg gears up. Cassie’s brother Billy is dedicated to the strike, and the police agree to back the strikers but continue working to keep the peace to avoid martial law. This is all accurate information that is included in the book that uses a gentle but honest way to convey these messages. Cassie’s whole family, and Mary and her mother, become involved in the strike. They feed hungry workers, and Cassie becomes the papergirl for the strike bulletin, a daily paper created to present the workers’ side of the news, as the regular papers were typically strongly biased against them.

I think the way the story is able to present the perspectives of men, women, and children; child labourers, factory workers, paperboys and girls, and police; activists and everyday people; and wealthy adults and their families… It all ties together nicely in a way that gives us a small view of one girl and the people around her, but it paints a complete and cohesive picture of those around her. We can see what different experiences of the strike were like for different groups, all through Cassie’s eyes.

I think this type of narrative really has a lot going for it in the way it presents the facts. It doesn’t water down the brutal realities of working conditions, the fear of starvation, or the details of the strike itself or of Bloody Saturday, an event where the government sent in the Mounties to deal with strikers to “prevent” violence, and ultimately causing the deaths of two workers and dozens of injuries after the Mounties fired pistols into the crowds and clubbed at peaceful protesters. This is a difficult topic, but a vital part of Canadian history, and I really respect how this novel for middle graders is able to address such a complex and painful part of history without ever feeling age appropriate.

The historical content is quite accurate, and I admired the use of an individual perspective here. I also loved that this story often focused on the women’s work involved in the strike. Many narratives of working for labour rights often leaves out much of the women’s work involved. Papergirl gives us a look into individual women who helped to make sure no one went hungry when everyone was going without. We also get a look at Helen Armstrong, a real woman who was a labour rights activist and feminist who worked during the strike to organise women and children in everything from feeding strikers to taking children to sing outside the penitentiary when strike leaders were arrested. These real pieces of information were incorporated into the novel in a way that was striking to read and helped really bring history to life.

Papergirl also leaves a lot to ponder regarding the immigrant communities impacted by these types of historical events. McCracken is able to show the ways xenophobia was used to fuel fear of the strikers and to push back against any improvements to their work conditions or pay. Immigrant communities are often disproportionately impacted by social injustices in the workplace, and this was even truer a century ago. Cassie experiences only a little of these injustices firsthand since her parents emigrated from England, but she witnesses the fear and hatred directed towards her friend Freddy, son of Ukrainian immigrants and the only income in his family working as a paperboy for the big newspapers filled with propaganda about people from his own background. Even though the targets of xenophobia have changed, many of these themes resonate in today’s society.

Melinda McCracken did write Papergirl in the early 80s, so I honestly expected perhaps a bit of a dated style in the writing that you don’t see in current children’s literature. I think her style was very reminiscent of books that I read as a child and loved. I think it has the kind of style that will make adults who were bookish children really happy and nostalgic. I think that perhaps some readers might find the style not to their taste, since it isn’t a style many children who read current releases would be familiar with, but I still think that many will find something to love here.

I was interested in reading this story when I heard what it was about since I love reading about history and this seemed to have a feminist angle to it, but it honestly surprised me in a lot of the delivery. Papergirl is a story that feels incredibly relevant to today’s society, with workers still hoping for a living wage as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and I think a lot of readers will find that parallel something to really consider. I think that middle-grade readers deserve the kind of story that ties history into what is happening in the world now.

Overall, Papergirl by Melinda McCracken is something I personally really enjoyed. I thought a lot of the themes really felt closely tied to society today, and the historical elements were true to the real historic event. The story is filled with hope for the future, even as it feels as though we don’t experience truly happy outcomes. I honestly would have loved to see a longer story, but there’s only so much you can ask of a middle-grade novel. I highly recommend this one, with my only real caveat being that those who don’t enjoy the style of children’s literature from around the 80s might not find the style to be their taste. Ultimately, this is a feminist labour rights novel for middle-graders that allows history and contemporary society to mingle in a way that feels so right. It has certainly sparked a fresh interest for me in the Winnipeg General Strike.

— The Feminist Bibliothecary, 2019

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