Counting on Grace
by Elizabeth Winthrop
read by Lili Gamache
juvenile fiction, 2006
This is the story of Grace Forcier, a twelve-year-old girl of French-Canadian heritage living in the mill town of Pownal, Vermont in 1910. The life of her family consists of working in the mill, using their paychecks in the company store, not having enough to eat, going to church on Sunday. She is in school when we first meet her; the "second-best reader" in the classroom. Grace is on the verge of leaving school to work in the mill. Her family, and especially her mother, are "counting on Grace" to do good work and add some money to the meager family income. Grace doesn't seem particularly dismayed about the future; this is what she is supposed to do, what is expected of her. She will be a doffer (a worker who replaces full bobbins by empty ones on the throstle or ring frames) on her mother's looms. We see that she is an active little girl, always moving around and completely unlike her orderly older sister who lays her clothes out the night before, and pays good attention to the dangerous work she does. When Grace starts working in the mill, we worry about her dealing with all those machines that can suck the person in and remove digits or limbs. Can she hold still? Can she focus? Fourteen is the youngest a child is supposed to be to work in a mill, but that rule isn't enforced. Grace uses her late sister's birth papers to make the bosses think she's older than twelve.
This would be an excellent read for kids in junior high school; twelve, thirteen, and fourteen year olds because these are important ages in Counting on Grace. It would be quite enlightening for today's kids with cell phones and computers to see how a girl of their age lived not so very long ago. It also portrays in a subtle manner how important education is, and how we take it for granted. Grace spends her one day off from work studying with the wonderful town teacher, who walks miles on her day off to bring the gift of knowledge to Grace and her friend Arthur.
I had intended to read the print version but since it was out at the library, the librarian suggested the audio cds. And oh, how glad I am that I read it in this way. The voices and the grammar were so much more impressive hearing them. Another terrific feature of the audio version is that we hear an interview with Elizabeth Winthrop, in which she talks about the inspiration for the book, and where it led her even after the book was finished. You may hear a sample of the reading here. My only quibble - a very personal criticism, is the use of music. I don't like mixing music with audiobooks. I just like the words read from the page.
The little girl pictured on the cover is Addie Card, a real child, who worked in the Pownal mill. It was taken by Lewis W. Hine who went across the country taking photographs of child laborers. Many of his photos may be seen here. Mr. Hine is an important character in the book. He comes to Pownal, and has quite an effect on the lives of Grace and Arthur. He boards at Grace's house, and lets her watch while he works on his photos in the cellar. There is a startling, poignant moment when Grace sees an image of herself for the first time.
Hine's caption on the photo of the real girl, Addie reads, "an anemic little spinner." Her arms are so thin, yet there is life and verve in her eyes. Note that she is barefoot. In the book, Grace says she doesn't want to ruin her shoes by wearing them to work where the floors are covered with oil. Though we may look at the picture and see Addie and her surroundings, we cannot hear the din of the machines or breathe in the dust and lint or actually feel those greasy floors. The whole job, the life is so crammed full of sensation. There isn't any quiet or peace or time.
You may read more about Hine and his work here and here. To see the range of Hine's work, you may go to The Library of Congress site. If interested in photographs from your state, you may type into the search Lewis Hine and your state, and if there are any, a clickable list will come up.
Elizabeth Winthrop answers questions about the book on her website. You may listen to a piece on the search for the history and descendants of the child laborers (and please do!) here.
I found myself thinking about my own family history as I sat down to write about Counting on Grace. I'm quite sure that in both my parents' families, the girls all went to high school and on to further education, while the boys all left school to work. My mother's brothers had to work on the family farm. My father never went to school past the sixth grade, and I remember hearing that he had to go to work, but I don't know what he did or where he worked; for his father, who did something with horses - selling, trading?? I fear I will never know. How easily history is lost. But the difference is that they didn't work in mills, they weren't part of that culture, and in the case of my father's family, they moved down to the US, and 'made good' as they say. The men all had successful businesses, and were very well off when they died. Every one of my aunts on both sides had good jobs as teachers, nurses, workers in the telephone company and the post office.
Counting on Grace is the very best kind of book: first - a well-written, excellent story about interesting characters, whom the reader comes to know and care for, and second - a book that engages the heart and mind in a subject that leads the reader to search out more and more information about the topic.