April 22


Audacity by Melanie Crowder – Review by Vanessa Capaldo

audacityI will admit, when I picked up this book and saw the free verse format it was written in, I thought, “Ugh, how can this serious subject be conveyed in this form?”

I am pleased to say that this format made the story more real, more beautiful and heartbreaking to me. Crowder’s words are haunting, yet hopeful.

Inspired by the real life story of Clara Lemlich, a young Russian Jewish immigrant who emigrated to New York City at the turn of the 20th century, Clara arrives with her mother, father, and two brothers, having fled their native Russia to escape the rampant antisemitism for the freedom and opportunity that America offers.

Clara longs to be educated and read books, but is not allowed to learn or read as in her native country, girls are not expected, or allowed, to be educated. Her brothers are allowed to read and learn, which frustrates Clara greatly. She often wishes she had been born a boy so she could be educated. Upon discovery of her cache of hidden books, Clara’s father burns them in front of her.

“I sink to my knees

in front of the flames,–

all those words


and flare,


My lungs seize

my eyes water

my throat burns

from the ache of breathing

in all those lost words.” (36)

Upon arrival to America, Clara finds work in a sweatshop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Conditions are deplorable: low pay, harassment from those in charge, and dangerous working conditions.  Being the determined and industrious young woman that Clara is, she begins to take up the cause of improving these conditions for her fellow female coworkers, leading to a violent uprising.

Crowder’s prose is an emotional roller coaster for the reader. I felt myself despairing quite often, but cheering Clara on as she fought to change the working conditions for herself and other women. Clara Lemlich is the original “Norma Rae” of improving working conditions for women and immigrants.

Vanessa Capaldo is a middle school English teacher in Burleson, TX. She lives with her daughter, three cats, a dog named Lulu, and their many precarious piles of books.