Okay, I’ll admit it up front, you don’t usually associate Labor Day with reading. The Christmas season conjures up good books thanks to Charles Dickens and the subsequent plays for the sentiment of the season by untold authors. But, I’ve read some fantastic books that deal with labor issues and their effect on American life. Plus, I love celebrating holidays and while I’ll be having a wonderful time at a BBQ tomorrow afternoon, I think the best way of enriching any experience is through reading, so here are my two choices:
I’ll start with a novel that feels like a summer read, but offers so much more, Triangle by Katherine Weber. It is the story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire where the workers on the 9th floor were trapped and several jumped to their death rather than die in the fire. It is impossible to read the story without thinking about 9/11 and that is one of the points of the book, that we all look at history through the lens of the present.
The recollection of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire comes from Esther, the oldest living survivor of the fire. The story takes place in current times largely from the point of view of Esther’s granddaughter, but it paints a picture of the immigrant women who faced so much to come to the US. Women who worked hard in terrible conditions to achieve the American dream. It is a labor story and a womans’ right story with a secret that drives the plot and the reader to the end. It’s the perfect read this weekend as we transition from the freedom of summer to the structure of fall; it’s a quick read that you’ll think about over and over again with it’s subplots about genetics, storytelling and music. I listened to a great podcast with Ms. Weber, but it does give away the secret and the end, so listen to it after you read the book.
My second choice for Labor Day this year is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich, a book I read several years ago and then saw the play based on it. The author is a journalist who tries to live on the minimum wage and writes about her experience. The first three month stint occurred in Florida where she worked as a waitress, the second period was in Maine as a maid and the third in Minnesota as a Wal-Mart employee.
Ms. Ehrenreich finds it impossible to live indoors on one job. To find housing she can afford she frequently needs to live far from her place of employment, a scary thought in these times of high gas prices. Any health care issue would ruin the precarious balance of income and expenses. At one point she “cheated” and called a dermatologist friend to prescribe lotion for a severe rash she experienced after working with cleaning fluids. She couldn’t afford to go to a doctor and she feared that she would lose her job if she took off time to go to the emergency room. She later learned that she would have had to pay $1,000 at the emergency room in any event, which she could not have afforded on a minimum wage salary. She found it near impossible to live on the minimum wage and she was living alone without children to support.
Ms. Ehrenreich was asked what surprised her about her working experience. She said the totalitarian nature of many of the work environments, two places she worked at had a rule against employees even talking to each other. She was also surprised by how mentally and physically challenging the work was, from learning the computer ordering system in restaurants, to juggling 30 menus for the nursing home patients, to memorizing the clothing locations for women’s wear in Wal-Mart, (which then changed every few days, a wave of frustration flows over me every time I remember her efforts to keep the piles of clothes in her area straightened). She was exhausted after one work shift, before having to go to a second job or try to raise children.
This book has changed the way I behave. I realized that the life I am living with fairly low cost clothing, food, and services is off the backs of hard working people. Claire had a similar reaction to the book. We’ve talked about how we tip food servers, valets, and hotel personnel significantly more as a result of reading Nickel and Dimed in an effort to offset the workers’ low pay. The book sheds a laser light on a the living wage and health care issues.
Enjoy the day off tomorrow. Many people worked hard so that we could enjoy the holiday, let’s not disappoint them.
Tags: recommended reading