1910. Pownal, Vermont. At 12, Grace and her best friend Arthur must leave school and go to work as a “doffers” on their mothers’ looms in the mill. Grace’s mother is the best worker, fast and powerful, and Grace desperately wants to help her. But she’s left handed and doffing is a right-handed job. Grace’s every mistake costs her mother, and the family. She only feels capable on Sundays, when she and Arthur receive special lessons from their teacher. Together they write a secret letter to the Child Labor Board about underage children working in Pownal. A few weeks later a man with a camera shows up. It is the famous reformer Lewis Hine, undercover, collecting evidence for the Child Labor Board. Grace’s brief acquaintance with Hine and the photos he takes of her are a gift that changes her sense of herself, her future, and her family’s future.
The feisty heroine of Winthrop's (The Castle in the Attic) novel set in a 1910 Vermont mill town brings child labor issues into sharp focus. Twelve-year-old Grace, who narrates, chafes against her teacher Miss Lesley's rules: "Seems she cares more about sitting still than learning." But when Grace must leave school to doff her mother's looms as an underage worker, she yearns for her former challenges. Winthrop effectively lays out the mill town's subsistence economy. Readers will understand why Grace's mother saved her deceased infant's papers in order to fake Grace's age (the child would have been 14, the age requirement for mill workers). One uplifting subplot follows Grace and classroom rival Arthur who become friends and co-workers in the mill and begin secret lessons with Miss Lesley. But the most compelling thread of the novel chronicles the mounting tension between Grace and her demanding mother, who dominates the other workers ("Only thing bigger and bossier than my mother in the spinning room is the frames"). The scene in which Arthur and Miss Lesley write the Child Labor Bureau may be rather forced, but a visit from Lewis Hine, who photographs the underage mill workers, feeding Grace's sense of connection to the world, seems believable. This enlightening novel explores the perils of mill work for children and adults alike. Readers will cheer when Grace uses her smarts to triumph over the mill store's corrupt bookkeeper, and the implication that she could well find a calling outside this mill town. Ages 8-14.