Among many other things, the good sisters at my high school instilled in me a strong love of song and a deep sense of social justice. When books like Which Side Are You On? by Kentucky native George Ella Lyon come along, both of those passions are well satisfied.
The story tells of the incredible circumstances that led to the writing of a famous pro union song, “Which Side Are You On?” With the sheriff’s gun-toting thugs shooting up her modest home, Florence Reece, a miner’s wife and mother of seven, tore a page from her calendar, crouched down on the floor-(to avoid the bullets) and wrote what was in her heart. The words are simple and stirring. They’ve buoyed the flagging spirits of workers around the globe and they’re as true today as they were 80 plus years ago. United, we can stand against oppression and aggression.
Lyon, a musician herself, suggests that the reader go online to listen to the many iterations of that song over the years—from Florence herself to folk icon, Pete Seeger to a “trad-punk” (my term) Boston group called the Dropkick Murphys.
George Ella Lyon is in familiar territory here. She born and raised in Harlan County Kentucky, the heart of coal country. Though she was a town girl, the mountains surrounded her and played—still play—a large role in forming who she grew up to be. Many of her books– Mama is a Miner, Sonny’s House of Spies, Who Came Down That Road?— take place in the area she knows so well. In Which Side Are You On? Her simple description of the coal miner’s plight makes the story accessible to young readers. However, she has notes at the end of the book that detail the beginning of the union movement in Harlan County and would spark the imagination of an eager older child. This would be a good adjunct to a 5th grade social studies class. It’s a look at life away from the big cities but just as gritty as any other ghetto.
Christopher Cardinale’s illustrations, with his long angular miners and their thin, big eyed families speak to the hardscrabble life in a company town. He has just enough cross hatching in the background to give his drawings the illusion that coal dust that has settled all over them the way did close to the mines.
If you’d like to find out more about Ms. Lyon, she has a wonderful website where she discusses poetry, sings her songs and talks about her life as an author, musician and activist. You’ll find it at: http://www.georgeellalyon.com/index.html .
Posted by: Eileen