Poor Turbulent Families: Misfortune or Opportunity?

Courtesy of UggBoy♥UggGirl via Flickr.

Is it possible for a child to overcome life with parents who act like children, too? Two memoirs of poor girls describe the pains and joys of surviving, and eventually prospering, by seizing opportunities despite difficult parents and poor surroundings. The first, The Glass Castle, is a series of audacious stories about a family in the 60’s and 70’s. They lived in a car and traveled in the western USA desert for a few years before settling in the father’s poor hometown in West Virginia. The stories are fast paced, pitting the children against their parents, other children, and the government.

Brooklyn Bridge, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The second book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, written by Betty Smith, set in the 1900-1920 period, is similar: the hero is a white girl named Francie, her father is a drunk, and the author relates many stories about family, school, and work. The book is fiction, but it relies on experiences of the author growing up in Brooklyn. It is much longer and ponderous than The Glass Castle and requires a patient reader, common at the time it was written (1943).

Francie was a bookworm and got a job reading and classifying newspaper articles when she was 14. The minimum age that the government would allow her to work was 16, so she lied about her age. Her employer knew that she was probably too young, but were not liable for prosecution because they inquired about her age and were deceived.

Stairs in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, NY, Courtesy of Jay Woodworth via Flickr.

Francie’s job as a reader is very similar to the description in an earlier post that Ian Graham gave in Unbillable Hours of his job classifying documents for legal discoveries and depositions. In both cases, our hero earns big money for doing work that others can’t do well. However, Francie enjoys the work because reading about current events educates her, while Graham at age 25 is too old to enjoy reading for so many consecutive hours.

Francie was offered a promotion and a raise. She supported her baby sister, mother, and sent her younger brother to school using the earnings. Although it was not the norm, I don’t think it was especially unusual in those days for a 14 year old to be the head of the family. In our modern time of extended childhood, I’ve never met anyone who did the same.

Postscript: Newspaper Delivery as Business Education
I wrote about working children in an earlier post, including the time I worked as a paperboy. Tom Vanderbilt and Daniel Flynn explain how the job has been taken over by adults, and commentator Brent says:

My uncle will take the better part of a Sunday afternoon regaling you with stories about selling papers on Los Angeles streets in the 1940s. He had his “corner,” and when the signals (no lights in those days) would switch to stop, he’d dash out into traffic to deliver papers to drivers. He was a a car toreador. Eventually, he got his three brothers to occupy the other corners of that street, a complete and nepotistic monopoly. At nine or ten years-old, he says he made as much money as a working man.

He also believes — and probably rightly — that a good part of today’s entrepreneurs received their early business education delivering papers.

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