To the Discussion Leader
Through Angela Denoto’s diary, young readers are welcomed into the family’s New York City tenement housing in 1909. Angela and her older sister Luisa are garment workers working fifty-six hours a week or more in sweatshops where pay is $7-$14 per week. The sisters and their friends get caught up in a strike.
The book’s Historical Note describes the strike this way. “The shirtwaist strike of 1909-1910, often called the ‘Uprising of the Twenty Thousand,’ is one of the most important strikes in United States history. It was the largest strike of women that had ever taken place up to that point, and it demonstrated that women could be a force in America ’s labor movement.”
When the Denotos become desperate for money, Luisa gets a job in the Triangle Waist Company. One day as Angela waits outside the building so she can walk home with her sister, she watches in horror as the factory catches fire. Panic and locked factory doors cause desperate workers to jump to their deaths while fire fighters struggle in vain to put an end to the disaster.
Angela’s diary is a story about living history. It is a story about groups — unions, workers, Italians, and Jews. It is also a story of individuals both fictional and real — Sarah Goldstein, Teresa Denoto, Rose Schneiderman, Isaac, and Max Blanck. Mostly, Hear My Sorrow is a novel about the power of individuals joining together to help one another.
“Well, that’s that! Soon I’ll be a factory girl. I’m glad I’ll be able to help…Yes, helping my family is what’s most important.” These are the words of fourteen-year-old Angela Denoto after she has quit school and decided to go to work. It is 1909 in New York City, and Angela’s father is unable to work due to an accident on the job. Mama earns a few dollars making artificial flowers, but money is scarce, and Angela must join her older sister Luisa who works in a shirtwaist factory. Angela begins work as a cleaner, one who trims the threads off the finished garment. Her job requires long hours, and the pay is poor. Her boss, Mr. Klein, is strict and uncaring. When one of the girls runs a sewing machine needle through her finger, Mr. Klein expects her to continue working as if nothing happened. Angela says, “I think Mr. Klein has a heart like a raisin.”
At work, Angela meets Sarah Goldstein, an older Jewish girl who helps her get promoted to machine operator. Angela is amazed by her: “Sarah is like no one else I’ve ever met. She seems on fire inside and wants to fight all the injustices in the world, starting here.” Sarah belongs to a newly formed garment workers’ union and encourages Angela to join. Luisa cautions Angela, “Don’t listen to Sarah Goldstein! The leaders of this union haven’t even tried to talk to us. They don’t care about Italian girls.”
The factory workers go on strike and Sarah signs Angela up for union membership. Angela worries how her parents will react. Surprisingly, her father is supportive and only warns her to be careful. While the factory is closed, Angela becomes more active in union activities, attending rallies, translating speeches for the Italian girls, and walking the picket lines. She writes, “Sometimes when I look at what I’ve written in this book, I feel so surprised. Just a few months ago, I was in school. I’d never even heard of a labor union. Now I’m learning about unions, closed shops, open shops, and the rights of workers. I’ve even spoken in front of rooms full of girls.”
Meanwhile, Luisa and her best friend Rosa hire on at the Triangle Waist Company which is not affected by the strike, and Angela’s younger brother Vito quits school and becomes a shoeshine boy. Finally, after more than six weeks, the shop where Angela worked settles the strike, and she is soon back on the job. Some of the workers’ demands have been met, and it gives Angela a feeling of accomplishment. “No one thought women and girls could strike. But we proved that we can.”
Late in winter, Angela and her little sister Teresa become ill with colds. After a few days rest, Angela returns to work, but Teresa, who has always been frail, contracts pneumonia and dies. The whole family is grief-stricken. Angela thinks Luisa blames her for their sister’s death. If Angela had gone back to work earlier, Teresa would be strong and well.
The success of the women’s strike inspires the men’s cloakmakers’ union to do the same. Their strike continues for two months, and they end up with better benefits than the shirtwaist workers. With the end of the strike, things return to normal. Angela begins to worry about her future, especially when she learns that Sarah plans to attend night school. Angela writes, “Sarah is beginning to move on and change, and make something better of her life. But what about me? I’m fifteen now. I’ve been a shirtwaist worker for more than a year. Will I be one all my life?”
Angela’s concerns are eclipsed by a terrible tragedy. On March 25, 1911, a fire breaks out at the Triangle Waist Company. Angela, rushing to find Luisa, watches in horror as trapped working girls fall or jump from the ninth story where the factory is located. The firemen’s hoses and ladders are unable to reach them, and the fire nets are ineffective in catching them. Angela witnesses a terrified Rosa fall to her death. Returning home to an empty apartment, Angela is convinced Luisa died, too. When her sister shows up later, bloody, burned, and in shock, Angela is overcome with relief. Luisa feels responsible for Rosa ’s death even though with the doors locked, the elevator not operating, and the fire escape broken, there was nothing she could have done to save her friend.
In all, 146 people die in the Triangle Waist Factory fire. Seven girls’ bodies are unidentified. A memorial meeting is called to honor those who died, and a funeral parade is planned for burying the unclaimed girls. Angela is proud to be part of this marching crowd, which is said to exceed 100,000. She writes, “Today it felt good to be with other people. I didn’t feel alone. I felt part of something. And somehow, I didn’t feel so hopeless…and I thought that if only we could keep walking together, maybe we could change something.”
Thinking About the Book
- How and why did Angela get her diary?
- Why does Angela feel comfortable writing all her thoughts in her diary?
- Angela and Luisa are sisters, but they are very different. Explain the differences between the two girls.
- What is meant by paesani? How do the people in Angela’s building help each other? Do neighbors still look after each other today?
- How does meeting Sarah Goldstein change Angela?
- What did Angela and the other shirtwaist workers gain as a result of their strike?
- Describe the Triangle fire. Why did 146 people die?
- Even though life in New York has been very hard for the Denoto family, why does Mama refuse to go back to Sicily?
- Why is Angela’s diary called Hear My Sorrow?
- Read the Epilogue to see what happened to Angela. Why do you think she chose those names for her three daughters?
- In 1909 things cost a lot less than they do now. Look at the prices for the following items mentioned in Angela’s diary: Rent: $14 per month; milk: 8 cents a quart; shoes: $2 a pair; umbrella: $1; gloves: 79 cents a pair. What do these things cost today?
- Angela goes to the fire escape when she wants to be alone and write. Do you have a special place you enjoy where you like to go to write or read? Tell about it.
- After Teresa dies, Angela wishes she had a photograph of her. She also wishes she had one of herself. Think about photographs you’ve taken or that have been taken of you. Do you have a favorite? If possible, bring it to share with your group. If you were a photographer and could take a picture of anything, what would you choose and why?
- Angela’s mother makes artificial flowers to sell for ladies’ hats. Try making some flowers.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.