Finding the Facts Behind the Historical Fiction
Ms. Austin's Fourth Grade Class
We are fourth grade students from a small rural school in western Massachusetts, who were assigned the book, Forbidden Friendship by Judith Eichler Weber, as part of our Immigration Unit. While we were reading this historical fiction, which takes place in North Adams, Massachusetts, a city just down the mountain from our school, we began creating a list of questions we had about the real-life events that inspired this story. After we finished the book we took our questions - about eighty in all - and organized them into the following categories - WHO - WHAT - WHERE - WHEN - HOW and WHY. Probably the most important question of all was DID this story really take place? We were all excited to learn about our own local history and the impact it may have had on our country and our world.
Our teacher, Ms. Austin, took a class last summer through the Hampshire Educational Collaborative, where she learned a lot about the history of immigration and how to teach immigration through the lens of local history. She was so excited when she learned that there was funding available for our class to research local history and to create a web site teaching others about what we learned. We took a look at other web sites created by young students through the Windows on History: Web based History Projects program and decided that this was an exciting way to learn about history - much better than just reading about it in a book!
With questions in hand we traveled to the North Adams Historical Society, the North Adams Public Library, and took a tour of downtown North Adams. We also were visited by local historians, and learned for ourselves the real facts behind this historical fiction. We collected primary and secondary resources everywhere we went - resources such as the census, photographs, town office statistics, artifacts, maps, journals, magazine articles, insurance data, and biographies - all from the late 19th century. Using these resources, and the help of some local experts, we have put together pieces of a historically accurate story of what turned out to be a very important local event - an event that would affect people across the United States for years to come. We also learned that the story of history is never really completed. The discovery of new primary resources and research by historians of all ages add to our understanding of local history and gives voice to those who may have not been heard before. The more we learned through primary resources the more we started listening to the voices of people who aren't always in our history books, voices of immigrants, woman, and children.
Join us on our journey of discovery, back to the 1870's, and see for yourself just how much fun it is to find out the facts behind the historical fiction.
The book, Forbidden Friendship, by Judith Eichler Weber, a historical fiction, is about the relationship between a young girl from North Adams, Massachusetts and a Chinese immigrant worker.
Molly is a twelve year old, whose father owns a local shoe factory, the Bartlett Shoe Factory. Chen Li is a sixteen year old immigrant from Kwongtong, China, who has come to North Adams to work in Molly's father's factory. Chen Li is one of the first Chinese to ever arrive in North Adams. He came to replace striking workers at the Bartlett Shoe Factory. Workers at the factory were striking, with the support of the Knights of St. Crispin labor union, for better working conditions, more pay, shorter working hours, and the right to see the the owner's bookwork. Seventy-five Chinese immigrants were brought by Molly's father from San Francisco, California by train, to break this strike.
In a time when most American young ladies would not even have had the opportunity to meet a Chinese person, Molly began teaching Chen Li how to speak English. It was believed that if the Chinese workers would learn English through studying the Bible, they would change their religion from Confucianism to Christianity. Every Sunday after church, Molly and Chen Li would meet at the factory to practice English. Chen Li turns out to be a very good student and a friendship begins between the two. Molly's parents, and most of the people of North Adams, do not approve of this friendship.
As Chen Li and Molly's friendship grows tensions "heat up" in North Adams and jeopardizes their relationship. To find out how this story ends we highly recommend reading Forbidden Friendship.
We have set this site up in the same format we used to conduct our research - by our questions. To find out about the "real" characters, places, events, local and national impact, and more about the Chinese immigrant experience of the 1870's that took place in North Adams, Massachusetts just click on a link. You will find links in blue. To find out What happened or Who were the historical figures we learned about just click on a link. To see a primary resource we used, or a thumbnail picture up close, just click on the picture. For secondary resources we used, just click on the Read What Others Say About this Topic link. Our Where link contains maps we looked at and the How and Why pages take you through the processes we went through in learning about local history. We have included a time line on our When page, comparing North Adams' history with both US and Chinese history. If you want to return to our Home Page just click on the link. Remember, always click on BACK to get back to our site. Enjoy!