Elizabeth Winthrop

Counting on Grace

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Counting on Grace Summary

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Counting on Grace (2006) is a historical novel for middle-grade readers, by Elizabeth Winthrop. Inspired by a famous Lewis Hine photograph of a young girl working in a factory, Counting on Grace tells the story of twelve-year-old Grace, who is put to work alongside her mother at a textile mill in early twentieth-century Vermont. There, Grace and her friend Arthur encounter deplorable working conditions, which ultimately inspire them to take action for the rights of workers and speak out against the barbarity of consigning children to hard labor.

It is 1910 in Pownal, Vermont. Grace and Arthur are the top students in their tiny one-room schoolhouse. All around them, children must skip school in order to work on the industrial looms at the local textile mill. Though the people of the community accept this as a normal part of life—often a requirement for families if they want to keep food on the table—, the children’s teacher, Miss Lesley, would rather Grace and Arthur stay in school and continue their education. Arthur agrees, growing intent on escaping the mill the first chance he gets. Grace, however, goes willingly. She knows her mother is one of the mill’s star workers—reliable, fast, and precise—and Grace looks forward to being able to help out. Money is tight, and the family needs food.

The mill assigns Grace and Arthur the job of doffing, working alongside their mothers; doffing involves removing bobbins and pins from the looms’ spinning frames. For Grace, there is a major problem with this task: It is a right-handed job, and she is left-handed. Because of this, Grace makes many mistakes, and each one means a dock in pay, less money for the family, and a blight on her mother’s reputation. On top of worrying about errors, Grace must also contend with long hours on her feet and the hyper-focus necessary to do incredibly tedious work. By the time she comes home after work, Grace is bone-tired, her legs and feet are swollen, and her hands blanketed in cuts.

Meanwhile, Arthur works at his mother’s loom, but on Sundays, he visits Miss Lesley, where he continues his education. He also begins to put together a plan that will get him out of the mill and back in school full-time.

After Grace learns that Miss Lesley is still teaching Arthur, she joins them for their Sunday classes. Sundays are Grace and Arthur’s only day off from the factory, and their lessons energize them in the face of their exhaustion.

Miss Lesley thinks it cruel to send underage children to toil away in factories. With her encouragement, Grace and Arthur secretly write a letter to the Child Labor Board, informing the authorities that the mill in Pownal employs children. They beg for help and anxiously await a response.

The response comes in the form of Lewis Hine, a photographer from New York. He steps off the train in Pownal loaded with his camera and equipment. He heads for the mill, where he tells the bosses that he has come to take photos of the machines. However, this is not true. The Child Labor Board has sent Mr. Hine, and he is really there to photograph the children working in the factory.
Grace strikes up a friendship with Mr. Hine, and he asks her to be his secret helper. She compiles the names and ages of all the children working in the factory so Mr. Hine will have identifying information to go along with the faces in his photographs. Aware of the potential dangers of this work, which, if discovered, could cost Grace and her family their jobs, she undertakes her responsibilities with extreme care and caution. She also understands that the mill could close once the Child Labor Board sees Mr. Hine’s photographs, but she feels the potential reward outweighs the risk.

After documenting conditions at the factory, Mr. Hine returns to New York. Then…nothing. Time goes by, and neither Grace nor Arthur hears anything about the mill or its fate. Arthur grows despondent and angry, desperate to escape the brutality of millwork. One day, he deliberately puts his hand into one of the machines, mangling it and severing two fingers. Though he recognizes his actions are extreme, he is willing to do anything to get out of the mill.

Then, Grace hears from Mr. Hine. He works with Miss Lesley to get Grace away from the mill and back in school, and she finally quits her job. Unfortunately, the mill does not reform its policies, and there are no reformations in the labor laws to crack down harder on companies who employ child workers. Grace’s brief friendship with Mr. Hine transforms her life for the better. Though Grace’s story has a happy ending, the same is not true for countless other children.

Counting on Grace contains biographical information on Lewis Hine, as well as a list of references. The book was the recipient of numerous accolades, including an ALA Notable Children’s Book honor, a Massachusetts Book Award for Children’s Literature, and a nomination for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award.