From a Small Fishing Village to a Garment Factory in New York

Posted by Michelle Porter on 2019 Apr 12th

Readers hang on every word as they travel with Edie Murphy from outport Newfoundland and Labrador to a bustling St. John’s and then to New York during the early 1900s. In each place, Jan Andrews offers colourful and compelling details that connect Edie’s journey with stories of strength, community, and the fight for human rights.

The book begins with the birth of a baby to a teenage girl in outport Newfoundland and Labrador. “Jan wrote that initially as a stand-alone piece. And then it sat, and it sat, and it sat,” said storyteller Jennifer Cayley about Jan’s writing process.

(Jan Andrews passed away in September 2017. TO SEE THE STARS is her last book.)

PREGNANCY IN A SMALL FISHING VILLAGE

Jan couldn’t leave the story in a drawer. She had more to say about teen pregnancy—and other issues faced by communities in the early 1900s.

“I think it was a piece that always seemed to pull at her in terms of speaking of a number of things that were just of fundamental importance in her life,” recalled Cayley.

In a beautiful and compelling scene, teenage Edie Murphy is home alone when another teenage girl in the community appears at the door, ready to give birth. The pregnancy had been kept entirely secret from the community. Edie’s strength and presence of mind help to bring a new life into the world. The rest of the chapter gives us a glimpse of how communities come together, and don’t come together, for young women and babies in need.

IN SERVICE IN ST. JOHN’S

Like many teenage girls in outport communities, Edie travels to town to take a job in service (any and all housework) so she can send money home to her family. She wants to contribute. The conditions, unfair treatment and low pay challenge young Edie. Still, she perseveres and makes things work.

Jan’s grandmother was in service, Cayley explained. “So she was always very interested in that whole business of how undignified it was to be in service. And what it cost people to be in service.”

A GARMENT FACTORY IN NEW YORK

Offered a better wage to work in a garment factory, Edie decides to move to New York so she can send more money home. Hoping for better, she finds a big city filled with immigrants who patch together home, family, and work as best as they can.

Edie struggles as she tries to become the centre of her own life. Factory work is exploitative. She becomes swept up in the workers' rights work and she witnesses the Triangle Fire that shaped the early focus of International Women’s Day campaign efforts.

"This powerful evocation of a horrific time in women's history is seering, yet shot with hope. Modern readers will be inspired by Edie's courage and resilience,” wrote children’s author Kit Pearson about the book.

Jan’s own history is behind the drive to provide a historically accurate picture of a time of amazing human and labour rights activism.

“Her parents were real strong labour people in England. Jan always had a strong sense of social justice. It was something that underlay a great deal of what she did. She was a person who believed in society and she believed that we needed to take care of one another and that people like Edie had a right to reasonable working conditions,” said Jennifer Cayley.

MAKING HOME

Edie has to find a way to make a home in the places she moves to for work. That’s her personal struggle—a struggle that’s still relevant in a world where so many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians still have to move away for work.

An immigrant in New York in 1911, Edie fantasizes about home and going back home.

“That’s something that’s happened to so many immigrants. That sense of longing for home. And then realizing when they go back that they really belong in the place that they built their life in,” said Cayley.

Edie discovers that she’s made a satisfying life and home for herself in New York. But she feels a pull back home, too. In the end, she realizes that the women she works with are her family and her community—and so she stays to work and to fight for women’s rights and labour rights.

And that’s what Jan’s book is actually all about, says Cayley. “The underlying thing you’ll see in all of Jan’s work is that people have what they need to manage. That you just have to dig deep and you know how to get on in the world. And that’s actually something that is somewhat lacking in children’s literature these days, or in culture generally,” said Cayley.