It’s all a lie.
Whether its history or her story, Elizabeth Winthrop made it clear last night in an intimate writer’s forum that whether stories are shouted or whispered, written or told, inaccuracy is inevitable. It’s the quest for a fine tale–and in this case, a cautionary tale–that guides Winthrop’s pen.
Winthrop holds that pen high. An award-winning author of more than 50 works of fiction for children and adults, she was inspired to write Counting on Grace when she saw a single photograph hanging in a museum exhibit a few miles from her New England home. The photograph was taken in Pownal, Vermont by early child labor photographer Lewis Hine and it graces the cover of the book.
Hine photographed working children between 1908 and 1917. Cotton pickers, oyster shuckers, mill workers, some as young as seven or eight. Winthrop was taken by the unbowed face of a too-young mill worker, perhaps nine or ten years of age, as she posed in front of a massive bobbin machine. The girl’s bare feet poked out below a shopworn grease-coated apron. She may have been spindly, but there was no question to Elizabeth Winthrop that the there was a thread of a fine tale in that child’s face.
During the ninety minute forum at Manhattan’s New School, the author explained that she “researches the whole iceberg and shows the reader only the tip”. Research for this book began before Internet genealogy websites. This meant exhaustive trips to the Library of Congress, combing local records and compensating for bad spelling, mis-heard names, and even watered-down ink sold to the U.S. government for use in the 1910 census.
Where are the lies? The original Hine image of this girl bore the caption, “An Anemic Little Spinner”, and her name was noted from census records as Annie Laird. No other record could be found. Was the census ink faded? The factory too loud when her name was yelled over the pounding whir of the mill? Winthrop’s careful sleuthing for a work of historical fiction uncovered the girl’s real name, Addie Card.
Winthrop followed Card’s true story, which was not the story of her character in Counting on Grace. The real girl in the picture, Addie Card, endured tragedies and triumphs, and a long life–93 years. Author and researcher Joe Manning helped Winthrop find the real Addie’s family, an adopted daughter, grandchildren and even a great grandchild. Once Manning began, he could not look away from the photographs of Lewis Hine’s children with no childhood. Manning is attempting to locate descendants of the original children from Hines’ famous photographs for a project of his own.
Addie Card, Annie Laird, or Winthrop’s character, Grace. What’s in a name? As the author of historical fiction, Winthrop points out though events in her carefully researched book “did not happen, they might have happened.” Regardless of the girl’s name, she shared her fate with countless children at the turn of the 20th century, and this child’s story is still alive today. According to UNICEF, “an estimated 158 million children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labor-one in six children in the world.” That’s millions of families, companies and consumers who are counting on child labor, still counting on children like Elizabeth Winthrop’s brave little Grace.