Lions in the Street is a novel about growing up on New York's Lower East Side in the early 20th century. The story follows Delia Brenner from her first days as a child laborer to her rise as a young union organizer at the age of sixteen.
Delia wants to stay in school, but when she is eight her family falls on hard times and her mother takes her to work at Mr. Meir's garment factory. There Delia makes both friends and enemies, among them: Lucy, brave, rebellious, and "beautiful as the lady on a box of Ivory soap"; Lilly, Delia's closest companion and "work sister"; Rachel, Lilly's ambitious older sister; and Pickles, the gonif, the thief.
Rounding out the cast are Delia's cousin Ben, a bootblack and gambler, his sister Leah, a shy, gifted artist, Olivia, the "red" aristocrat who introduces Delia to the world of the radical rich, and Pamela, an American heiress, born into wealth but willing to leave it all to dedicate herself to others. Finally, there is Henry Mendelsohn, magician, slight-of-hand expert, and "gentleman of leisure." It is he who introduces Delia to the alien concept of "leisure" one spring day when the girls arrive at work and find the factory gate locked. Leisure? She ponders the strange word. What if life were not all work and no play? What if there were some better way? What would life be like then? Delia doesn't know, but she is determined to find out.
Her quest takes her from the Lower East Side to the salons of wealthy progressives, and beyond to a campground for renegade workers, the prison house of Blackwell's Island, and ultimately to the front lines of the largest labor strike in New York's history. "In the winter of 1909," she and her comrades sing out:
When we froze and bled on the picket line
We showed the world that women could fight
And we rose and won with women's might.
Though Delia and her friends are fiction, many of the events in this book, including the rent strike of 1907 and the garment workers strike of 1909, are real. Equally real was the Jewish Daily Forward, sold by Delia's friend Jake and hundreds of other newsboys on every street corner. The Forward served as the voice of the Lower East Side and its pages bear testament to the neighborhood's vibrant intellectual, social, and cultural life.
You can navigate your way through the novel via the Table of Contents on the right. Each link leads to the opening paragraphs of the chapter. To continue reading the chapter click on "read more" at the bottom of the page.
The title of the novel is a reference to the Masque of Anarchy, an epic poem by British writer Percy Bysshe Shelley, the last verse of which reads:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many - they are few.
The poem held special significance for workers. Shelley wrote it in support of an English labor uprising in 1819. His words were considered so incendiary the poem was banned in many parts of Britain for thirty years. Once freed from censorship, it was read and widely quoted by laborers of all backgrounds. You can learn more about the Masque and its origins here.
I have included more information on the history of the Lower East Side in the About section of this blog. I have also added a Resources page for those who are interested in further research and reading. I am always happy to hear from readers. Please feel free to contact me with a message or question.
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The photographs on this site are courtesy of the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library.
Like many Americans I am the descendant of immigrants. I have always been fascinated by their stories. I hope you enjoy reading about Delia and her adventures growing up on the Lower East Side. If you want to learn more about the historical background, please take a look at the About and Resources sections. If you want to learn more about my other books for children and young adults visit my website.
TABLE OF CONTENTS