Sunday, September 6, 2015

Reading Through History: Lyddie by Katherine Paterson (1991)

Lydia "Lyddie" Worthen, the oldest of the four Worthen siblings, has had to take on the roles of both father and mother after her father's abandonment of the family and her mother's descent into mental illness. When her mother sends her to work as a maid in a tavern, Lyddie discovers that she could make much more money each week working in a factory. She spends the last of her meager savings to travel from Vermont to Lowell, Massachusetts, where she is hired to work the looms in a textile mill. Though Lyddie's primary motivation is to make enough money to be able to return home to her family's cabin, others she meets have different priorities, including going to college, helping ailing parents, and making changes to unsafe working conditions.

This book provides wonderful insight into the dangers and difficulties of life as a factory girl, delivered through one of the most compelling female characters in children's literature. Lyddie's family history, and her experiences at the mill are not happy, for the most part, but her grit and determination in the face of hardship after hardship and sadness after sadness gives the story a subtle sense of hope that keeps the reader invested even when Lyddie's future looks bleakest. Lyddie, in her quiet, inconspicuous way, models for the reader how to continually regroup and persevere in the face of tragedies and setbacks. By telling Lyddie's story, Katherine Paterson personalizes the horrible conditions under which factory workers were forced to do their jobs, thereby helping readers to grasp their reality, and the motivation behind the labor policies that came later.

While I generally dislike books where the main character falls in love with the work of a famous author, Lyddie is an exception. Lyddie's excitement upon first hearing Oliver Twist, and her enthusiasm for reading the book again and again until she nearly has it memorized, humanizes her a little bit, and allows the reader to see a more vulnerable and emotional side to her otherwise tough-as-nails personality. Because Dickens wrote about factories and child laborers- and specifically about the textile mills in Lowell - it also makes sense for Lyddie to be aware of him, and to react strongly to his work. While some authors use story threads like this to wax poetic about their own love for a specific writer or work, Paterson's use of Dickens is logical and suitable to the story, which is truly refreshing. This also provides an opportunity for kids to read both Lyddie and Oliver Twist and to discuss their connections.

The other aspect of this book that brings in some softer emotions is Lyddie's relationship with her brother, Charlie, from whom she drifts further and further away throughout the story. Whereas Lyddie and Charlie are essentially the parents of their broken little family at home in Vermont, they are forced to separate in order to make their own ways in the world, and Lyddie's affection for Charlie, and the uncertainty of when the two siblings will be together again is a driving force beneath her persistence and seemingly limitless strength. Seeing how their relationship changes is one of the most poignant storylines of the entire plot, and it drives home the sadness and difficulty of Lyddie's circumstances in a very powerful way.

This is a book I will absolutely want to share with my own children as they study 19th century America. It's educational but never dry, and utterly engrossing, to the point that I read the entire thing in one day because I couldn't stop. Lyddie is a character I won't soon forget, a fact I think will be true of every reader who takes the time to enjoy this novel.

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