Week-end Book Review: Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Christopher Cardinale

George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Christopher Cardinale,
Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song
Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.

Ages: 9+

In Which Side Are You On?, Harlan County, Kentucky native George Ella Lyon tells the terrifying true story of the event which inspired Florence Reese’s famous labor rights song. In the process, ably abetted by the darkly powerful images of illustrator Christopher Cardinale, Lyon celebrates not only the courage of union organizers during a 1931 coal miner’s strike but also the vital unifying role of folk music in difficult and dangerous times.

Written in the fictional voice of one of the songwriter’s seven children, the story begins with a description of the virtual slavery of the coal miners, whose homes are owned by the mining company and who are paid in scrip good only at the company store. “Gun thugs” have come for Pa, a miner and union organizer, but he was forewarned and has “lit out” across the mountain to hide. Bullets are ricocheting all over the house. The children are hiding under the bed. Ma, inspired by desperation, realizes, “We need a song.” She tears off a page of the calendar and composes the now-iconic anthem on “the back of May.” It becomes a rallying cry still adapted and sung “by people fighting for their rights all over the world.”

Reese, who lived to be 85, told the story of the strike and the song to many documentarians and organizers over her lifetime. In a wonderful author’s note, Lyon explains that songs and stories change as memories and needs change, then recounts how she learned the version presented in her book. All the issues in the story, she writes, remain “alive today, when wealth and power are held by a small percentage of people so that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.”

Cardinale’s woodblock-looking illustrations bring alive the spunk and poverty of Appalachian people who stood up to “the man”.  A tidy childlike sans serif font adds to the effect. When Pa returns and Ma sings her song to him, her mouth wide open and her children and husband surrounding her, Cardinale encloses them in lavender streaked with black circular gestures that seem to send her music out into the world. “We can use that,” Pa says of the song. “It’ll bring folks together.”

As Ma writes, her lyrics appear line by line on banners across the pages. Tune and lyrics are also printed on the book cover. Song, story and image combine to introduce readers to rare courage and integrity. Which Side Are You On? presents a disturbing, provocative, consciousness-raising opportunity for children and adults alike.

Charlotte Richardson
March 2012


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