Heavy on the historical, light on the fiction. I think kids will spot the Educational Purpose in this story of the Women’s Suffrage movement a mile away, and if they’re interested in being educated and in the history of how women got the vote, they’ll enjoy the book. If not, then not.
I’m in the first camp. I like history. I like my history encased in fiction, even if it’s fiction with an overt message. The Hope Chest is fiction with a purpose. I learned a lot about the fight for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one giving women the right to vote. For instance the last state to ratify the amendment was Tennessee, and that’s where much of the action of this book takes place. Suffs (suffragettes in favor of giving women the vote) and Antis (traditional women and men who are against ratification of the nineteenth amendment) fight it out inside and outside the Tennessee legislature as the members of that body consider ratification. The political battle includes liberal amounts of bribery, illegal liquor, dining and dancing, and skulduggery.
The story that frames and weaves in and out of this political history is one of an eleven year old girl, Violet Mayhew, who runs away from hoe because her parents are treating her unfairly. She goes to New York to find her sister, Chloe, a women’s rights activist and nurse-in-training, meets another runaway, Myrtle, and they both end up in Nashville as the ratification battle shifts into high gear. Myrtle is a black orphan girl who doesn’t want to become a servant just as Violet doesn’t want to became a lady, and Myrtle’s race adds to the complications the girls face in the segregated South of the 1920’s. Author Schwabach uses all these characters, as well as an anti-war activist and labor union member, to represent the controversies and injustices of the time period. The Suffs are patronized and treated shamefully by the Antis and their allies. Legislators take bribes to change their votes and run away to avoid having to vote on suffrage. Mr. Martin, the labor unionist, is arrested by a couple of Palmer agents. And Myrtle is denied access to train cars, restaurants, hotels and almost every other convenience and accommodation.
Ms. Schwabach packs a lot of history into one book: Jim Crow laws, the 1918 influenza epidemic, World War I and the anti-war movement, the advent of Henry Ford’s automobile, the Palmer raids, Prohibition, hobos riding the rails, Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations, the labor movement, socialism in the U.S., and of course, women’s suffrage. It’s a lot to put into one story, and as I said, it gets somewhat didactic at times. The book contained lots of feminist propaganda, which I mostly agreed with, but not everyone will. Even if you don’t agree with the entire feminist movement, what’s a little edification and instruction among friends and history buffs?
Read and learn.