On May 15, 1919, some 30,000 workers in Winnipeg walked off the job to protest poor living wages and demand collective bargaining. Two new middle-grade novels bring the general strike, a watershed event, to light through determined working-class protagonists.
Papergirl – by the late Winnipeg author and journalist Melinda McCracken with Halifax writer and editor Penelope Jackson – follows 10-year-old Cassie Hopkins, whose policeman brother informs her why the workers in their city are unhappy and what they plan to do. Bored at school and longing to help, Cassie takes on the role of papergirl, selling the Strike Bulletin, a paper put out by the strike leaders. While on the job, she meets Freddy, a Ukrainian teen selling the Tribune, leaving Cassie to wonder why an impoverished immigrant who must support his large family would side with politicians and business leaders. During the novel’s climax, Cassie, her family, and thousands of others gather for what they believe to be a parade. Instead, the day – now known as Bloody Saturday – turns violent, as Mounties club and shoot at the unarmed protesters.
Papergirl’s feminist view of the strike is effected through Cassie, her best friend Mary, and the girls’ mothers. The book also shines a spotlight on Helen Armstrong, the real-life advocate and organizer of the Labour Café, a soup kitchen set up to ensure striking girls and women were fed and remained able to pay their rent. But McCracken keeps the novel focused on Cassie and the other children she comes into contact with, offering a palpable sense of how the strike affected kids of various backgrounds and socio-economic status. The writing can feel dated – McCracken penned Papergirl in the 1980s but it is only being published now – and may prove an obstacle for some. That said, the novel gives younger readers valuable perspective on the strike and a positive role model in Cassie.
City on Strike, by Harriet Zaidman, is a more nuanced telling of the events through the eyes of two Jewish siblings, 13-year-old Jack Sitner and his 11-year-old sister Nellie, who are living on the very meagre wages of their older sister Fanny, their mother, and Jack himself, a paperboy for the Manitoba Free Press. Their father is unable to find employment after being laid off and struck hard by the deadly Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918. When Jack is asked to work in the wealthy South End, he meets William Andrews, the (fictional) son of (the real) A.J. Andrews, a lawyer, former mayor, and member of the Citizens’ Committee of 1,000 – a group of business elite who set out to crush the strike. After his mother and Fanny join the strike, Jack worries about his family’s lack of food and savings and starts selling the Western Labor News as well as the Free Press, though he comes to realize the latter is full of lies. On Bloody Saturday, Jack finds himself in an office building with William and a photographer, who is taking pictures of the violence below, including the infamous streetcar derailment.
First-time novelist Zaidman vividly depicts the racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant views of Winnipeg’s elite, who felt justified in denying work and a living wage to those unlike themselves. She quietly yet powerfully demonstrates how various news outlets portrayed the same story differently based on ownership and audience. City on Strike draws a fuller portrait than Papergirl by bringing in more characters, such as a school principal who essentially tells students to report their own parents’ “treasonous talk”; a soldier back from the war who’s working as a scab; and wise William, who represents positive change in the next generation.
Both Papergirl and City on Strike are well-written and well-researched novels that will engage students and provoke discussion about workers’ rights, immigration, and objective journalism, then and now.