Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Ashes of Roses

Ashes of Roses

Mary Jane Auch
Historical Fiction
For ages 12 and up
Dell-Laurel Leaf, 2002   ISBN: 978-0440238515

Rose Nolan, her parents, her sister Maureen, and her little brother Joseph are on a ship bound for New York City. They left their home and their life in Ireland hoping that America would give them new opportunities and a better life than the one they had at home. It is the turn of the century and thousands of immigrants are entering America through the harbor in New York. All the steerage passengers have to go through the immigration building on Ellis Island. Afraid and bemused, Rose’s family is ‘processed’ like so many others before and after. Unfortunately it is discovered that little Joseph has trachoma, a disease of the eyes. Anyone who has such an illness is turned away at Ellis Island and must return to their country of origin.

Thus it is that Rose’s family is broken up. Rose, Maureen, and their mother go and stay with Rose’s uncle Patrick in New York City. Though Patrick is glad to see them and to help them, his wife and her daughters are not. Eventually a dreadful argument breaks out over a job that Rose has taken on, and Mrs. Nolan decides to return to Ireland. Her daughters however, want to remain in America to try their luck for a better life. Rose is determined to get a job and soon enough she has one at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. She comes to form close friendships with some of the other girls who work in the factory, and is just beginning to learn how to be a "modern working girl" when a disaster changes her whole world.

For many of us just hearing the name of the factory is enough. We know the story and it fills us with horror. The author of this book takes that story and makes it more than just a fact in a history book; she brings it to life putting faces and personalities where there were perhaps just statistics. We get to meet the girls who worked in the factory, girls who loved to dress very fashionably and wear fancy hats. We also get to meet those who tried to change the working conditions of the working class. We learn about the strikes that took place before that dreadful fire occurred. So many workers fought very hard to change things for the better for factory and sweat-shop workers. Unfortunately it took a tragedy to open the eyes of those who could make the changes happen. One hundred and forty-six people died in that fire but at least we can see that it was not in entirely in vain.

The author’s meticulous attention to detail and her wonderful descriptive prose takes us deep into the life of Rose, her family, and her friends. We experience the terror she feels when she rides on an elevator for the first time, and the sheer wonder that she feels as she watches her first "moving picture." We cannot help but rejoice when she succeeds in her work and more importantly when she emerges at the end of the book, a strong and determined young woman, eager to do her part to make change happen. An author’s note at the back of the book provides a fascinating look at how the author gathered her material and what she learned about her subject.