Changes for Rebecca

Published in 2009; author Jacqueline Debmar Greene; illustrators Robert Hunt and Susan McAliley


Rebecca and Ana are pretending they're in a movie about an immigrant girl coming to America. In their script, Rebecca plays the girl who works in a factory and Ana is the cruel owner. Ana plays the part too well, angering Rebecca on behalf of her character. She doesn't understand why Ana has to be so mean, but Ana explains that she's not exaggerating: that's how it is to work in a factory. Rebecca doesn't quite believe Ana--surely it can't be that bad. But then she sees some editorials in her aunt and uncle's newspaper detailing factory working conditions, and when she and Ana take lunch to Uncle Jacob and Josef at the coat factory, she sees the truth.

Shortly after she spends the night with Ana's family. The girls sleep on the fire escape, a common thing for tenement children to do to escape the August heat. When Jacob and Josef arrive home late that night, Rebecca and Ana overhear Uncle Jacob talking about the possibility of a strike at the factory. Rebecca quietly shows Ana a letter she's written to the newspaper editor. Ana's doubtful it will help--it's just one letter against so many powerful and corrupt factory owners. But Rebecca has to try something. If enough people write letters, maybe the mayor of New York City will see that change is needed. 

The next day the workers at the coat factory do indeed strike. Aunt Fanya goes down to march with her husband and eldest son, not questioning the dangers of a 1910s picket line, only focused on supporting her family (her resolve is actually pretty moving, and I have a lot of respect for this fictional character). Michael, Ana, and Rebecca are instructed to stay in the tenement and continue painting the shelves Uncle Jacob has carved--they're both beautiful and functional and he hopes to sell them to raise more money for his family. But the younger children feel they have to do more. After all, soon Michael and then Ana will be older and might have to work in a factory. They head for the picket line.

When they arrive, the workers are marching with their signs, but strike-breakers are also there, with clubs to beat the workers and force the strike to dissolve. Police come, but they only arrest some strikers, not the men instigating the violence. A well-known workers' rights advocate, Clara Alder, makes an impassioned speech before she's knocked to the ground and disappears in the din. Rebecca tries to calm things down by reading her letter to the editor, still in her pocket, but someone throws a rock at her and it hits her in the head. Dizzy, she falls down and before things get hazy, she sees Uncle Jacob and Josef being shoved into a police car. 

Back at home, Rebecca's mother, aunt, and grandmother scold the younger children for going to the strike, more out of concern for their safety than anger. They point out that the rock that hit Rebecca near her hairline could have hit her eye, and all of them could have been hurt worse. Lily quietly comforts Rebecca, telling her that she was right to follow her heart--although she should be careful. Rebecca's father arrives home with Jacob and Josef, having bailed them out of jail. Uncle Jacob has good news and bad news: the factory owner has agreed to meet with the workers to figure out a plan, but everyone who was arrested is fired and blacklisted from other factories. He and Josef won't be able to get new jobs. 

The family puts their worries aside for a bit to enjoy the Labor Day picnic. They go to a large gathering at Battery Park, and applaud speeches about workers' rights. One of the speakers then invites Rebecca herself onstage! Everyone's heard about the speech she started to give at the strike. She speaks from the heart about her family's plight and hopes the right people get the message. When she returns to her family's picnic sight, Max has a little speech to make as well. He's moving to California with his movie studio, and Lily's coming with him--after they get married, that is. Rebecca and Ana find one of the men who Rebecca met at Max's movie studio and he gets the band to announce Max and Lily's engagement. It turns out he was the one who told the event organizers that Rebecca was in the crowd. He's not going to California, preferring instead to move to Brooklyn to start his own carpentry business (he used to build sets). And he could use a cabinetmaker. Guess what Uncle Jacob did in Russia? Sure enough, he's given a job on the spot, and will earn enough money that Josef can attend school instead of working and the whole family can move to a better home.

Capitalizing on everyone's good mood, Rebecca tells her parents about having acted in the movie, and Max and Lily back her up that she's naturally talented. Much to her relief, the only scolding is light and related to not telling her family so that could go see her in the movie. Her parents aren't totally sold on her being an actress, but they will think about it.

Looking Back

Immigrants who came to the United States to escape poverty and oppression in the own countries were sometimes caught off guard by the working conditions in their new home. Factory workers were pushed to work twelve-hour days, six days a week, in poorly ventilated and uninsulated crowded rooms for little pay. At first some immigrants jumped at the chance to get any job, but soon they realized that they'd never make enough money to get out of poverty. If they quit, there would be a line of other destitute people to take their places, and they'd probably just end up in a different factory. But what if everyone at a factory stopped working at the same time and refused to return until they had humane conditions and a living wage? Going on strike was a powerful form of protest. Many strikes in the early 1910s were lead by Jewish immigrants. Gradually the word got out about their treatment and unions formed to protect workers' rights. While some less-than-ideal jobs still exist in the US, conditions are generally better than a hundred years ago.


This book is dedicated to "my husband, Mal, who shared the kvetching and the kvelling."

The movie Rebecca acted in is in theaters, and Max and Lily take her and Ana to see it. Only those four know she's playing the part of the girl.

Rebecca's mother has a very brief moment when she seems a little sad the Benny's about to start school. Her youngest is growing up. 

Had I been in charge of this book, I would have asked the illustrators to put a young adult Nellie O'Malley in the background of a picture of the protest. She would be living in New York City then, and I'm sure that she would want to support workers' rights.

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