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harriet zaidmanHarriet Zaidman's new young adult novel, "City on Strike: A Novel" (Red Deer Press 191 pg. $14.95), is set during the time of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 when workers and soldiers returning from the First World War demanded jobs, decent wages and the right to organize.
“Many politicians and business leaders condemned strike organizers and, backed up by police, unleashed deadly violence against them on a day now known as Bloody Sunday,” said Harriet in describing the book.  “City on Strike focusses on a 13-year-old boy and his younger sister who are part of a poor but hard-working immigrant family. Together with their neighbours, these siblings get drawn into the chaos that changed the city, and the country, forever.” Following is an excerpt from "City on Strike":

Chapter 8

Monday, May 27


Nellie arrived to an empty playground after lunch. She knew the other kids were at home, avoiding the sun until they had to go outside. But she needed to be out of the house to collect her thoughts about the strike. It was affecting everyone, sapping their energy in the same way the sun drained it away. She knew her family and most of her friends’ families were concerned about money and what would happen next. Every day was uncertain and yet a routine had developed. Nellie settled herself inside the entrance to the school.

Many mornings, Fanny had gone out to protest, almost as if she were going to work. She’d taken part in women’s demonstrations in front of the T. Eaton Company, the largest department store in the city. Everyone shopped there. They sold everything from clothes to houses. Eaton’s opposed the strike, promising to fire any employees who took part.

“But Eaton’s didn’t account for Helen Armstrong,” Fanny told them when she came home one evening. “She is a determined woman.”

Helen Armstrong was one of the strike leaders. In a matter of days after the strike began, she organized a free soup kitchen called the Labor Cafe for single women who had walked off the job.

“I saw Miss Ross there when I was volunteering,” Fanny told Jack and Nellie. “She ate a meal, then she got up and helped serve, too. She told me she’d been fired for organizing a union among the teachers. She said the hardest part of it is that she misses her pupils. For now, though, she’s working for Helen Armstrong. There are so many women who earn so little, they’ve already spent their savings.”

When Eaton’s had threatened their employees, Helen Armstrong and other women—including Fanny—had gathered outside the store on Portage Avenue, urging the low-paid sales women arriving for work to join their ranks. Fanny spoke to of one of the saleswomen who walked past toward the entrance of the store. She stopped, then turned around and approached the line. “I’m with you,” she said. “I’ve had it. The managers tell us not to eat a lot so we’ll be as skinny as possible—they want our waists to be eighteen inches around.

“They think starving women are attractive?” one woman asked.

“I suppose,” the Eaton’s worker said. “Maybe that’s why they pay us starvation wages.” She fitted her hands around her slim waist. “I have to cinch the laces on my corset tight so I can appear thin for the customers. I can hardly breathe when I’m behind the counter all day.” She slipped her arms in with those of the other strikers. “If they fire me,” she laughed, “I’ll be poor, but at least I’ll be able to breathe.” Her new sisters clapped and cheered for her.

The company declared its support for the Citizens’ Committee of 1000 and fired any of their workers who joined the strike. Eaton’s also announced it would send out the company’s famous horse-drawn rigs to make deliveries around the city. They would carry on “business as usual.”

Strikers learned that Eaton’s would be delivering orders to households in the West End of the city. They planned a blockade.

That’s when Fanny proposed an idea to Mama. “Come with me, Mama. You’re part of the strike, too,” she said.

Ich ken nit—I can’t,” Mama said, shaking her head. “Es iz azoi veit—it’s so far away!”

“Mama,” Fanny said, “That’s an excuse. It’s only a thirty minute walk.”

Finally, Fanny persuaded her. Mama fussed over her hair, combing it and braiding it a few times so she would look presentable. She protested that her clothes looked like rags, but Fanny assured her everyone else’s were threadbare, too.

When they came home later that day, Nellie was astonished to see how her mother acted. She was like a different person, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Mama hummed to herself while she prepared dinner, even though it was only a can of peas cooked into a soup with a parsnip.

Mama ignored Nellie’s repeated questions about what had happened until they sat down to dinner, and at last Fanny filled her in.

Mama, Fanny, and a few hundred other women had converged at Logan Avenue and McPhillips Street to stop Eaton’s from making deliveries from its warehouse.

“Wasn’t it dangerous when the horses came close?” Nellie asked.

“Yes, but we all linked arms,” Fanny said. She described the way the women began shouting and screaming, frightening the animals. The drivers yelled at the women: “Move away!” and swung their fists in the air.

“But we women—German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, and British—all of us, refused to move. We swung our fists right back. You should have seen Mama! Tell them what you shouted at the drivers, Mama,” Fanny said, a smile curling on her lips.

Mama quickly began studying her soup. “‘Ich hob gornisht gezogt,” she said. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Mama,” Fanny chided, elbowing her mother playfully. “Tell them.”

Mama clucked her tongue. “I said, ‘Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele mitn kop in dr’erd!’ May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground!” She chuckled. “They don’t understand Yiddish, but they understood my fist!” She raised her fist and showed her family how she shook it.

“Mama!” Nellie exclaimed. She had never heard her mother say a nasty word, and certainly never saw her raise her fist in anger.

“It wasn’t only me,” Mama said, feigning innocence. “Mary Danchuk next door came too, and she told them in Ukrainian, ‘Aby tebe kachka kopnula—May a duck kick you!’ And she swung both fists!”

Nellie and Jack burst out laughing. Their neighbor was a quiet woman who liked to garden. They couldn’t imagine her on a picket line, cursing.

“Mrs. Mynarski swore at them in Polish,” Fanny said. “Wyphańá she sianem. Stuff yourself with hay!”

Tateh and Mama laughed. “And the drivers turned the horses around,” Fanny went on. “The mighty Eaton’s department store was defeated—by a bunch of women!”

They all laughed harder. Mama talked about women who had been friendly to her. Nellie made Mama show her again how she had raised her fist.

Chapter 9

Tuesday, June 10


“Vu hostu dos altz gekrogen? Where did you get all this?” Mama’s eyes bulged at the jar of peanut butter, a pound of tea, and a small rump roast on the dining room table. “Vu?” Mama held the piece of meat wrapped in butcher’s paper with both hands, as if it were gold. She looked bewildered.

“I found a two-dollar bill, Mama, on Main Street,” Jack said. His legs trembled. “I used it to buy these things for you.”

“You found two dollars?” Nellie sounded surprised.

“It was lying on the sidewalk. I waited for a long time to see if someone would come back to find it, but no one did,” Jack said. “So I went to Mr. Kurk’s delicatessen. He doesn’t have very much on the shelves anymore, but I bought those for you. Do you like what I got?”

Now his heart began thumping at the lie. Jack had practiced his story over and over in his head, but it was still hard to make himself sound believable. Mr. Kurk had given him the same questioning look as his mother when Jack asked for the roast. It was the last piece of meat in the store.

“Who would drop money?” Nellie asked, standing beside Tateh at the table, her hand on her father’s shoulder.

Jack stiffened. His breathing became shallow. He wished Nellie would stop talking. He didn’t know if he could keep up his deception much longer. Mama hadn’t taken her eyes off the roast. It was if she couldn’t believe it was real. He saw his father’s forehead wrinkle.

But Tateh wasn’t paying attention to the conversation about the roast. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop, his eyes closed. Earlier, he had related what happened during the afternoon. A “Special Constable” on horseback had terrified a crowd of returning soldiers and strikers at the corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street, riding right into their midst, hitting and thumping people from above with his club.

People on the ground retaliated, yanking him down from his horse and beating him. More Specials attacked. Fights broke out, with bystanders also hurt.

“They’re thugs, goons,” Tateh said to no one and everyone. “He rode into the crowd deliberately, to provoke us. They’re desperate because more soldiers are joining the strike. This was their answer.”

He opened his eyes, but Jack could tell his mind was still back at Portage and Main.

The day before, the City had insisted all policemen sign an oath promising not to participate in union actions; they had nearly all refused and were fired immediately. The Committee of 1000 must have been collaborating with the City, because they had organized 1,600 men to show up. The City hired them right away and swore them in as “Special Constables.” Deputizing them with arm bands, the Committee gave the Specials bats, batons, wagon wheels, pieces of lumber, or anything wooden and heavy, which they then used to batter strikers and their supporters.

“Your friend Jeannie’s brother is a Special,” Tateh told Nellie, putting his hand over hers. “I saw him there.” Both she and Jack drew in sharp breaths at this news.

Tateh and Fanny had been on the outside of the crowd. They both got away unhurt, with Fanny leaving for the Labor Temple to help anyone who had been injured. “I’ll be home later, Tateh. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful,” she had assured him.

Now, Jack brooded at the stalemate between the Strike Committee and the employers. People were getting impatient for them to work out an agreement, but the employers wouldn’t agree to any changes as long as the workers insisted on the right to be organized. The Citizens’ Committee of 1000 was united, and they proclaimed themselves to be defenders of the city. Why was it all right for the employers to be united, Jack thought, but not the people who did the work? They’re trying to starve us out, he realized. They know our money won’t last.

A.J. Andrews spoke over and over about the “need for calm,” even though the city was calm. Not if you read the Winnipeg Citizen, though. Jack had collected all their editions. He felt troubled when he read their headlines:

An Attempt at Willful Murder—reports are fast coming in of children on the verge of death for the want of milk. Newsboys threatened. Hoodlums daily create disorder on the streets, tearing up newspapers and insulting those who buy them. War on babies, women, and children seems to be the principal weapon of the strike committee. What power have the babies on the verge of death for the want of milk? What power have the newsboys who deliver newspapers?

Of course there were problems and disagreements over how the city should run. The Strike Committee had removed the need for permits, and the dairies now had their own workers back on the job, delivering milk and bread. There had been a brief disruption, but nothing bad had happened. There was no war on babies, women, and children.

It was all mixed up, Jack thought. What should people believe? He’d been threatened—twice. Several days earlier, just when he’d sold most of his Western Labor News, two toughs had grabbed him. He recognized one of them from the North End. One pinned his arms from behind and held them tightly while the other pounded him in the stomach, sneering, “That’ll teach you a lesson, Jew. Go back to your country!”

“I was born here. It’s my country, too,” Jack spat out as he tried to kick his attacker and fend off the blows. But he knew the hooligans didn’t like anyone who wasn’t just like they were.

In his mind, he understood why the Western Labor News issued this call:

Strikers, Hold Your Horses!

Steady, Boys, Steady

Keep Quiet

Do Nothing

Keep Out Of Trouble

Leave this to your Enemies

Continue to prove that you are the friends of law and order

The strikers didn’t want to be seen as instigators of violence, to bring down the wrath of the law. But the law wasn’t doing anything to stop the violence by those who opposed the strike. Doing nothing didn’t seem like that good an idea anymore. Do nothing. The Specials weren’t doing nothing. What did law and order mean? Law and order for whom?

A few days earlier, two supporters of the strike had torn the bag from Jack’s shoulder and cursed him as he was crossing the bridge to deliver the Free Press in Crescentwood. One man held the bag while the other emptied it, shoving the papers over the rail of the bridge into the river. “That’s what decent people think of this rag,” he growled. “You oughtta be ashamed.” They hurled his bag at him, gave him a kick, and took off.

He was ashamed. He deserved their curses for delivering a newspaper that deliberately made things up, but he’d become too numb to think. Money—that was what he thought about all day and dreamed about all night—money for his family. At this point, it was so they wouldn’t starve, never mind get ahead. But he didn’t get paid that day. No papers, no money.

Tateh looked hollow and sad again. The laughter from Mama’s exploits had only been temporary. Jack knew he was helping prolong the strike by delivering papers. The air around him crushed his chest.

Mama clicked her tongue and went into action. She put the roast in the pot. “Nellie,” she said, “get me a carrot and a parsnip from the root cellar. Then tell Mrs. Danchuk next door we have something special. This we have to share.” Jack watched Nellie skip out and his mother go into the kitchen to begin cooking.

Suddenly he felt short of breath. He inhaled and exhaled loudly and, as he did, his stomach began to cramp and twist. He couldn’t help but cry out at the pain. Tateh was startled out of his reverie, catching Jack as he lurched forward. Mama ran from the kitchen.

Vos iz? What’s wrong?” his parents both said at the same time. Before he could answer, Jack vomited right in front of them, his guts heaving and retching until everything he had consumed that day was spread all over the linoleum. He choked and sputtered, his eyes welling with tears.

Mein kind, my child!” Mama cried out, running to wet a towel and cool his reddened face. She wiped his mouth while Tateh held him. Mama put her hand on Jack’s forehead to check for fever. “Flu?” she said to Tateh. “Is maybe the flu again?” Her voice quavered. She cradled his cheeks. Tateh looked stricken.

Jack fell limp in his father’s arms, sick at the thought of eating the roast.

City on Strike is available for sale at McNally Robinson, the Manitoba Museum, Chapters, Indigo, Dalnavert Museum and on Amazon.

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#1 Mr.Avrum Rosner 2019-07-01 15:05
Wonderful book! Highly recommended.