Readers used to toned down biographies and nonfiction will get a startling wake-up call as the story begins with the murder of the main character, Fannie Sellins. After the stunning opening, Farrell explains the history, context, and as much as is known about the life of Fannie Sellins.
Little is known about her early life, marriage and widowhood, but eventually she went to work in a sweatshop, manufacturing clothing. With the other seamstresses they formed a Ladies' Local of the United Garment Workers of America and negotiated with the management to win better pay and shorter hours (although the dismal conditions of the sweatshops changed little). Sellins eventually came to work for the union full-time and began to travel, uniting workers, standing up for the rights of women and children, and garnering support for factory workers. Eventually, she came to the dangerous work of the coal mines of West Virginia. With workers in virtual slavery and government-backed mine owners, Fannie could have given up and gone back to her successes in the garment industry. However, she stayed and fought, supporting coal miners and their families. She was arrested, jailed, beaten, and eventually murdered. The sheriff's deputies who shot Fannie Sellins, despite numerous eyewitnesses, were never convicted.
The book is filled with original documents and photos that show the grim conditions and the powerful organizations that Fannie Sellins faced. The author's note discusses more about the struggle for labor unions and whether or not Sellins made a difference. It also discusses her research and the gaps in the information about Fannie's life. Back matter includes an extensive glossary, time line of labor strikes and their results, notes and sources. There are also further resources for learning more about unions, acknowledgements, and an index.
Verdict: Some reviewers recommend this for as young as fourth grade but for my audience it's going to land squarely in middle school up to teen, along with Farrell's other powerful work about women in history, Pure Grit. The story is dramatic but never exaggerates or is needlessly graphic. Readers may be shocked and horrified but will also be inspired to think about the changes they can make in their own families, communities and the world. Strongly recommended for teen nonfiction collections.