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Books in Brief: Audacity, See How Mall


Audacity by Melanie Crowder; Philomel, 388 page, $17.99. Ages 12 and up.


This stirring novel, told in free verse, tells the story of labor activist Clara Lemlich, a Russian Jewish immigrant who defied both her family’s traditional views and society in general to become a fierce advocate for labor unions through International Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 25. Crowder vividly evokes Clara’s voice, painting a backdrop of life in czarist Russia, the terror of the pogroms, and Clara’s quiet rebellion in learning to read Russian in defiance of her father’s wishes. Clara’s first-person perspective offers a vivid portrait of the hardship of the voyage to the U.S., packed into steerage (“One thousand souls share the same foul space.”). The family settled into a filthy apartment in New York and Clara went to work to support her family at one of the many garment district sweatshops on Manhattan’s Lower East Side while studying English in night classes – despite her father’s opposition – as she dreamed of attending medical school. Her outrage at the working conditions (sexual harassment, “mistakes” with pay or with the clock, dangerous working conditions including doors locked from the outside) led her to union organizing, pickets, strikes and multiple beatings by New York police and company goons that landed her in the hospital. It was not until the horror of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire that workers gained some protection through the law. Crowder includes an interesting afterword about Lemlich’s later life, interviews with her children and a glossary of terms.

– Jean Westmoore


See How Small by Scott Blackwood; Little, Brown, 224 pages ($25)


The murder of four teenagers in an Austin, Texas, yogurt shop in 1991, still unsolved, inspired Scott Blackwood’s novel, but this slender book is not “In Cold Blood.” It also is not “The Lovely Bones,” though some trade reviewers have been quick to link the two novels because the spirits of dead girls speak in both books.

While “The Lovely Bones” brings closure to many elements of its story, “See How Small” does not.

Two unknown men enter an Austin ice cream shop late at night. They tie up three teenagers – sisters Elizabeth and Zadie, and Meredith, whom the sisters refer to as the “horsey girl” because she rides. The men sexually assault the girls, shoot them and torch the place.

As years go by without charges, their deaths haunt people who were close to the girls or were on the scene that night: Kate, the mother of Elizabeth and Zadie; Jack, the first firefighter to enter the burning ice cream shop; Rosa, an Austin Chronicle reporter covering the story; and Hollis, a traumatized veteran who now drives and lives in the “art car,” “its roof and hood tattooed with a mosaic of seashells, buttons, beads, metal army men, and hairless dolls.” Their deaths also trouble a young man who had thought he was driving the getaway car for a simple robbery that night.

Because of his wartime head injury, Hollis “can’t find the mental thread on which to string the everyday beads of his life.” But the girls’ deaths, and the lack of resolution, burn up the threads that keep others together, too, especially Kate and Jack.

In 60 short chapters, Blackwood moves quickly from one point of view to another, in an unpredictable round robin.

In several chapters, the dead girls speak as a collective ghost that still recognizes each girl’s individuality. They also directly haunt Jack and Hollis; Kate experiences a different haunting when she realizes she’s stopped dreaming about them: “She wanted the unending worry back.” In a few chapters, an unnamed speaker seems to question how or what story is being told. The author? One of the murderers?

– Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel