The Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 was organized by workers who were frustrated with long hours and low wages. Papergirl takes a fictional look at the strike through the eyes of a child: Cassie is 10 years old and lives in Winnipeg with her working-class family. She volunteers for the strike committee as a papergirl, witnessing the strike take shape as she distributes their bulletin at Portage and Main. Then the violence of Bloody Saturday changes her forever.
Aimed at middle years readers, Papergirl is timely in that 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike. It also comes 17 years after author Melinda McCracken’s death in 2002. Her daughter, Molly McCracken, was instrumental in getting the manuscript finally published.
Molly McCracken hadn’t read the novel before her mother’s death. “I was 28 years old and her only child. I did a lot of work to wrap up her things and always said I’d get to reading her archived work when I’m ready,” she says.
She found a file called “Papergirl” in the University of Manitoba Archives. “I read it and heard my mother’s voice jump off the pages,” she says. She made a copy and submitted it to a publisher.
Melinda McCracken wrote Papergirl as her first major full-length work and her first attempt at youth fiction. She tried to have it published at the time, but for some reason, she didn’t pursue it when publishers requested changes to the manuscript.
Penelope Jackson, a youth fiction writer, was brought in by Roseway Publishing to both edit and enhance the story. “Melinda’s manuscript came to me as a 17,000-word story with a funny, delightful protagonist, 10-year-old Cassie, who, along with her family, is wrapped up in the events of the Winnipeg General Strike,” Jackson explains.
“I added about 15,000 words that flesh out the rest of Cassie’s world. I wanted Cassie (and the reader) to see the poverty and desperation of Winnipeg’s workers up close, so I gave her a best friend, Mary, whose war-widowed mother was struggling to make ends meet as a factory worker.”
Jackson also added a fictionalized version of Helen Armstrong, “a brilliant labour leader who’s been largely overlooked by historians (like many other women). Using information from primary sources and from a riveting documentary by Paula Kelly called The Notorious Mrs. Armstrong, I was able to weave her into the text; she becomes a mentor and role model for Cassie and Mary,” Jackson says.
Jackson hopes that Papergirl will help make the history of the Winnipeg General Strike come alive to young readers, especially because it is written from the perspective of a girl.
“Historical fiction is a fantastic way for young readers to start learning about history. It’s like colourizing old black-and-white photos; suddenly everything seems more real. And the Winnipeg General Strike is this huge moment in Canada’s history that I never heard about it in school – I’m glad readers can learn about it from Papergirl now,” she says.
“I’m also so glad that Melinda thought to create the book from the perspective of a girl, which is not a historical perspective that’s explored enough.”