Factory Girl
Author: Barbara Greenwood
Pages: 136
Publisher/Date: Kids Can Press/2007
ISBN: 155337648X
Age Levels: 9 and up

Book Review

"How has it come to this?" Emily cried when she ended up working in a factory.

Emily was not resentful because she had to work. She had always known that she would have to bring in money to help her family. She was upset because she felt she had to go out to work too soon.
Such was the case of the working poor in early twentieth century North America. In Emily’s case her father had been laid off and had traveled west, finding work where he could and sending small amounts of money home for his family. When his letters stopped arriving—along with the money—the family was evicted from their home and Emily and her younger brother were forced to find work.

Emily eventually ends up in a garment factory where she stands eleven hours a day clipping threads from blouses. The conditions are filthy. The "constant din from the whirring sewing machines" gave her a headache and made it hard to hear—not that there was anything to hear anyway. No one around her spoke for fear of the floor boss’s wrath. "No chatting," she had been told; the boss couldn’t stand time wasters.

So there she stood . . . shoulder to shoulder with the girls on either side, part of a group of eight around the table, snipping, snipping, snipping, absolutely mute.

Although Emily’s story is fictional, she is representative of garment factory workers at the time. The factory system—with its specialization and assembly lines—was able to produce inexpensive clothing.
To keep costs down even more, factory owners hired workers with few skills. They preferred female workers, especially teenaged girls and children. Their small hands and nimble fingers were good for working with intricate machinery.
When Emily finds out that her father has been killed in a mining accident, her dreams of continuing her education and finding a "respectable" job begin to dissolve. She slowly resigns herself to her circumstances.

One day, without warning, a fire breaks out in the garment factory. Emily’s friend Magda is killed, and Emily barely escapes with her life. All looks lost until a young reporter named Pete offers Emily a glimmer of hope. Pete tells her that "well-to-do" people are "speaking out and getting factories cleaned up. Lots of people want to help."

Pete tells Emily that she can help too. "But what can I do?" she asks, "I am only one person." It is then that Emily realizes that she can indeed help—help by telling her story and the story of the other young factory girls she had worked with.

Barbara Greenwood has done an extraordinary job of weaving together the fictional story of Emily with a social history of the lives of working children. The facts and statistics are given a human face and become all the more real and poignant.

In addition to garment factories, readers will learn about the home life of immigrants, city life, working women, benevolent societies, settlement houses, and more.

In the chapter "The Power of Pictures," Greenwood chronicles the work of men such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, photographers whose arresting images exposed the plight of child laborers. Their black-and-white photographs are interspersed throughout the text, bringing to life the children Greenwood writes about.

A time line, glossary, and index are appended.

Factory Girl is an outstanding, engrossing story.

Reviewed by the teachers at Education Oasis
©2007 Education Oasis http://www.educationoasis.com

About the Author

Barbara Greenwood's books include The Last Safe House: The Story of the Underground Railroad among others. She lives in Toronto, Canada.


Go to the Library of Congress Learning Page for lessons and material on child labor.