Another free classic I found at the Kindle shop a year or so ago, "The Portion of Labor" by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman was first published in 1901 and deals with the life of factory workers in a small industrial New England town and their struggle for decent living conditions and fair wages.
Up until now, I had not known anything about the author, but while reading this book, more than once I thought that some of her ideas about women's stand in society must have come across as revolutionary in those days.
Her own life, as Wikipedia tells me, was strongly restricted by her very religious parents when she was young, but she received a college education (by no means the average thing to do for an average girl back then), worked as a secretary and married comparatively late, at the age of 50.
Not having lead the "typical" life of a woman of her times herself, it is hardly surprising that Freeman's story features quite a few untypical ladies; women who, through hard work, hard thinking and hard decisions make the best they can of their lives and for those they love and care about.
When Ellen Brewster is eight years old, she runs away from home, frightened by an argument between her parents and her aunt. It is cold and dark outside, and when the exceptionally pretty girl is found by a rich, childless lady, said lady takes her into her house with the intention of keeping her. A few days later, the child, wanting her mother more than anything, now that the novelty of the adventure has worn off, escapes and returns home.
All her life, Ellen never tells anyone where she has been, showing a stubborness and firmness of character that will cause her both trouble and joy as she gets older.
Growing up, the girl proves to be a bright student, and her parents, humble people who have managed to build up a modest life for themselves with the hard-earned money from one of the shoe factories, desperately wish for her to get further education and not end up working at the factory.
At first, it looks as if their plans might come about against all odds, with help from an unexpected source. But soon, things take a turn for the worse, when the Brewster family is hitting hard times with Ellen's father out of work, her aunt needing medical attention and no improvement of conditions in sight.
So, Ellen does indeed end up working at the factory - but she is different from the other girls there, in that she actually enjoys the feeling of satisfaction work gives her.
Of course, there is also a love story - actually, more than one - in the book; politics play a role in that there is an ongoing conflict between the workers, the union and the factory owner, and Ellen herself plays a crucial role in it. Several people lose their lives and things look very dire before an unusually harsh winter ends and spring does not only bring renewal for nature, but also hope for the hearts and minds of the story's heroes.
I much enjoyed this book, although I must admit it has its lengths. But the language is beautiful, and the characters and places described well. Ellen's way of thinking is credible to me; even when she is a child, I can relate to the way she thinks, because it is how children do think.
The conditions of life for factory workers were far from easy back then, although much better than what they probably were some decades earlier: work started at 7.00, there was an hour's lunch break from 12.00 to 1.00 pm, and the whistle blew for work ending at 6.00 pm. Wages differed according to the task one had, and the number of pieces completed. Being out of work meant automatically being out of money; no such thing as unemployment money or any insurance to fall back on. It pretty much sounds like what is reality for millions of people all over the world - think factory workers in China, or those who work in textile factories in India and Bangladesh, where the hours are probably longer than in 1901 in New England, and conditions worse.
The book gave me a lot to think about, and an insight into a world that, while it is firmly put in the past for many of us, is still present reality for way too many people.