Stars and Stripes

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
It is 1847 and fourteen year old Kathleen Ryan has just immigrated to Boston from Ireland. She and her family have to overcome discrimination and disease in their new life.

Submitted: May 07, 2013

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Submitted: May 07, 2013

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I hear the rain fall gently against the roof, and open my tired, burning eyes to the cold darkness. I hear my brother’s quiet breathing, and I remember our home in Ireland. I close my eyes and see the grassy, emerald colored hills, lush and beautiful, the dew drops sparkling in the morning sun. I see our house and the farm where we worked, and I remember the hunger, the pain that always lingered, the disappointment of no potatoes at supper when the famine started. I remember the countless arguments at night between Mother and Father, always about the money we didn’t have. And I see our landlord, Mr. Byrnes, whose face was hard and harsh as he told us we could no longer live in our home. I remember the struggle afterwards, when we were so hungry that we almost ate the grass in the fields like countless others. But all of that was in Ireland, before we came to Boston in 1847 on towering ships that housed lice and ticks. I shuddered, remembering the constant fear of catching a terrible disease like typhus or cholera from the sick people, with their glazed eyes and blank stares. Those who survived the horrible conditions on the ship, including us, were greeted by “runners”, who tried to steal the little money we had, and cheat us when we arrived in Boston. Luckily, Father outsmarted them.

I hear the others begin to stir, and I dread the long day at the fabric factory. The only freedom is at night, when I am asleep and dreaming. But even then, I can’t always sleep through the night with the strange noises of the city.  

My mother starts to sit up in the darkness, and so does my father. But there is so little room in our small tenement at Five Points that it is hard to sit up without waking the others who share our tenement.  

“Rise and shine, dear.” my mother gently nudges my younger brother, Daniel. He rubs his eyes, his brown hair tufts sitting up sleepily on his head. “It’s time to go to school.” she chides him gently, and starts to comb the loose knots in his hair.

“I don’t want to go.” he says, his eyes starting to well up with tears. “All the other kids tease me when I walk home from school.”

My mother sighs sadly, and I quickly rise to leave early to go to the factory. The factory owner, Mr. Baker, gives us a five cent bonus if we work an hour more. As I walk out of the cramped tenement, I make sure to say goodbye to my mother, father, and Daniel. I only ever see Mother, Father, and Daniel in the morning, since my work in the factory starts at 6:00 AM and ends at 9:30 PM. I always dread going to the factory, but I know I have to be strong and do it for the benefit of the family.

“Bye Kathleen!” my brother Daniel says as I walk out the door of the tenement, flashing me a bright, sweet smile.

“Bye Daniel!” I wave, and walk out the door onto the dirt road. The path is caked in wet, sticky mud from the light rain, and there are people everywhere, all chatting in different languages, but mostly in Gaelic.

I walk down the road to the factory and turn the corner. Smoke puffs out of the colossal tops of the factory, and I cough while opening the tall, heavy metal doors. Once I do, I accidently run into an older woman.

“Watch where you’re going!” She spits at me, frowning.

“I’m sorry.” I say apologetically, my face turning red from embarrassment.

“Must be another Catholic Irish.” she mutters under her breath as she turns away, and I feel the rage grow like a wildfire inside of me.

After my unpleasant encounter with her, I quickly go to greet Mr. Baker, my boss.

“Good morning, Mr. Baker. I am here early to sew the fabrics together. Do you have any work for me?” I ask him.

“Why would I care if you’re here early?” he asks me impatiently. “I’m very busy; I don’t have time for lowly Irish Catholic workers like you.” he says, glaring at me. He pauses, as if allowing time for the insult to sink in, and continues. “Although you’ll probably be of no use to her, you could go to Joan. She might have some easy work for you.” he says.

“Thank you very much Mr. Baker.” I say, trying to ignore my burning cheeks and injured pride. I walk quickly down to the small cubicle where Joan is, and groan internally when I notice that she is the woman I ran into this morning.

“Back again, are you?” she hisses at me.

“Yes. I was wondering if you needed any assistance.” I say, ignoring the sting of her comment.

“Well, you could start by sewing that lavender shirt together.” she grumbles, pointing to the light colored fabric. “After that, you can finish sewing all the fabrics in that pile.” she says, pointing to a huge mound of cloth sitting haughtily on her desk. Undaunted, I take the floaty lavender fabric into my hands and sew. I occasionally prick my finger on the needle, wincing from the pain, and Joan screams at me when I can’t thread the needle in half a second.

“You’re even worse than the last girl.” she spits venomously. “Why would the boss hire you?” she asks under her breath.

I block Joan’s incessant muttering out and continue to sew until there is no fabric left in the pile. I quickly glance up at the clock, and notice that it is 9:30 PM. Joan slaps my face, and my cheeks sting from the pain.  

“You’re not done yet.” she growls at me. “You still have to sew this peach blouse together.” She says, and throws the fabric in my face.

“Yes, ma’am.” I reply, and begin to work on the shirt. Once I finish, it is 9:45 PM.

“Thank you for allowing me to assist you.” I say to Joan, and leave quietly. She snorts, not bothering to reply.

As I walk towards the looming doors of the factory, I notice Mr. Baker by the door, handing out the daily payment to the other workers. He reaches out to me, and places a 50 cent coin into my open palm. I frown.

“Mr. Baker, I came this morning an hour early. May I please have my five cent bonus?” I ask him.

“What?” he spits, his face contorting as though he had just sucked on a lemon. “What are you talking about?”

“When I came here the first day, you mentioned that if I came an hour early, I would receive a five cent bonus.” I say quietly, to avoid embarrassment at his expense.

“I never said that.” he voice lowers dangerously, and his face turns purple with rage. “Now, if I were you, I would leave with my 50 cents, and never question my payment again. Unless I wanted to be fired.” he smiles at me through bared teeth, his voice dripping poison.

“I am sorry for the misunderstanding, Mr. Baker. I must have heard wrong.” I say as politely as I can, given the circumstances. But inside, I am boiling over.

“You bet you did.” he said harshly, and turned to leave. I walked a few more steps towards the door of the factory, and jumped when I felt a finger on my shoulder, turning around.

“Mr. Baker cheated me out of my payment, too.” a girl with animated, emerald green eyes and blond hair whispers. “He does it to everyone. My name is Kelly.” she holds out her hand, and I shake it, pleased to have found someone friendly and understanding in the dull factory.

“I’m Kathleen.” I tell her, smiling.

“Were you born in America, or did you just immigrate here? I haven’t seen you around before.” she asks me, her eyes dancing.

“I just immigrated here from Ireland a couple of days ago. I’m Catholic.” I tell her cautiously. I expect her to say “Oh.”, and walk away with her nose in the air, just like everyone else does. But she doesn’t. Instead, her eyes light up, and her mouth curves in delight.

“Me, too!” she squeals. “I live in Five Points; What about you?” she asks.

“I live in Five Points too!” I say excitedly. “What a coincidence.” I tell her, and we walk together down the dark, damp road.

Once I reach the tenement, I try to walk through the door calmly, but deep down, I am extremely ecstatic to have found a friend here. Mother, Father, Daniel, and I all sit down at the small table at the center of the room. We are soon joined by Mr. and Mrs. Parker, the couple who shares our tenement, along with their baby, Amelia. My parents and the Parkers chat about work, the news, and their financial hardships. My father tells Mr. Parker about his work in construction, while Mr. Parker makes comparisons to his work in the mines. Meanwhile, my mother explains the hardships she faces at Lady Elizabeth’s, the house where she works as a domestic servant, and Mrs. Parker listens attentively while rocking Amelia back and forth. I listen to Daniel as he repeats the names the other children call him, and it does not help me feel welcome here. Mother, Father, and I all struggled to find work. Some factories and stores even had signs that said “No Irish Need Apply”. Many people had also burned down Catholic Churches, causing worried conversations between Mother and Father late at night. In the next hour, we try to wash and sleep, and I stare at the stars outside.

The days pass quickly at work with Kelly, one after another. But time seems to stop when Daniel starts to obtain a burning rash. But the pain does not stop there. Soon, he starts to have terrible headaches, followed by a stomachache. It is only after a few days of this that we realize Daniel has contracted typhus, a disease that could be fatal if Daniel isn’t treated soon.

When I wake up the next morning, I hear Mother and Father whispering. Mother seems upset, so I quietly get out of bed, careful not wake Daniel or the Parkers. “Mother, Father, what’s wrong?” I ask, concerned.

“Your father has decided to move out west to work on the railroad. We need more money to be able to buy medicine for Daniel.” My mother says.

“It will only be for two weeks.” My father says in a calm voice.

“What?!” I shout at my father. I lower my voice, thinking of Daniel and the Parkers. “You can’t leave, you can’t. What are we going to do without you?”

“Kathleen, we need more money to buy your brother medicine.” My father replies calmly. “If I don’t go, your brother might not make it.” My father says in an even quieter voice so Daniel wouldn’t be able to overhear.

“Father, we barely have enough money to rent our tenement, let alone enough to be able to feed Daniel. If you leave, we will be starving and homeless before the typhus can take Daniel’s life.”

“Your father and I have some extra money that will help us make it through the next few weeks. I just got a raise to make $2.00 a day, instead of $1.50. You can work extra hours at the factory.” My mother says. I can see the sadness on her face. Just like the way it was before we left Ireland.

“I’ll work as hard as I can in the fabric factory. But who will take care of Daniel while Mother and I are working?” I ask Father.

“We will leave food and water out for your brother in the mornings. Mrs. Parker will check on Daniel while she looks after Amelia.” My mother says. I know how much she wishes that she was able to stay at home and take care of Daniel. I make a promise to myself that I will do whatever I can to make sure Daniel is okay. I can’t let my mother and father do all the work. Daniel has to survive this horrible disease. I don’t know what I would do if he didn’t.

“I am leaving tonight, Kathleen. I will miss you. I will be back in two weeks with enough money to buy the medicine for Daniel. For now, you should go to sleep so you are ready to work tomorrow.” Father says to me. I run over and give him a hug. I know how dangerous working on the railroad is. Kelly told me the story of her father’s death. He was working on the railroad, but he accidentally blew himself up with dynamite that was meant for clearing the path for the tracks. I can’t even think of that without tears springing into my eyes. Mother says I have to try to be positive.

“Whatever happens, Tom, come back to us.” My mother says, tears welling up in her eyes.

“I will, don’t you worry. I am going to say goodbye to Daniel now.” I look over at my father as he gets up and walks into the bedroom where Daniel sleeps. This must be so hard for him. I stand up and start getting ready for work.

The days continue like normal. Get up, go to work, go to bed, and worry about Daniel and Father all day. Work is almost impossible. It is hard enough at work as it is, but with my constant worrying, I cannot sleep. Joan won’t hesitate to kick me out without paying me even if I close my eyes for a second. These days, I feel as though it was easier during the potato famine in Ireland.  Mother is fine, since work for her is not as physically demanding as it is for me. I know she worries, though. She worries for Father and Daniel even more than I do. Both of us have constant bags under our eyes from lack of sleep. Daniel’s fever is relentless. Sometimes, his temperature rises to 105 degrees. His rash has spread, and he barely eats or drinks. At least he hasn’t started having delusions. Kelly said that people with typhus die when the delusions start.

I am startled when Mother shakes me awake the next morning. I fly out the door and bolt to the factory, ignoring rude girls that taunt me on the street as I run by. I get straight to work today, not wasting a second, but I can barely keep my eyes open. I am exhausted. I don’t know how much longer I can keep up this work schedule. At least Father is supposed to be back in three days.

“You, yes you!” Joan yells at me. I look up at her, startled. “You are not working fast enough. Get out!!! Don’t expect any pity from me. Don’t come back to the factory ever again, you lazy girl.” She chases me with the sewing needle, and I sprint out of the factory and run home as fast as I can. I don’t know how this happened. How are we going to be able to afford food now? I can barely think about it without crying. I feel as though I am a disappointment, a failure. I run up the stairs to our tenement, open the peeling door, and see Mrs. Parker, a worried expression plastered on her face.

“Thank goodness you are here, Kathleen. Your brother has started to hallucinate. I don’t know how much time he has left.” She says in a panicked voice. I run over to his cot, and see Daniel, who is rolling around and mumbling unintelligible words. I don’t know what to do. For now, at least I am going to be able to take care of Daniel instead of looking for another job.

When Mother gets home, I can tell that she is mad at me for losing my job. At least she doesn’t yell at me. Mother starts to cry when she sees Daniel’s condition. We can only hope that Father makes it back in time with the money for the medicine.

I stay at home over the next two days. I don’t think Daniel will make it through the end of the week. I can tell that Mother doesn’t think he will either, from the constant tears in her eyes as she tries to coax food and water into him. During supper, I try to drip some water into Daniel's mouth. He doesn’t move, and his eyes are half open. As I drip some more water into Daniel’s mouth, I hear our door open and my mother shouts out. In walks Father, holding the medicine to cure Daniel. I hug him quickly.

“Kathleen, you are to put this into Daniel’s water every day for a week.” He says, smiling. “Daniel should start to get better by morning. He’s going to be okay.”

I give Daniel the medicine immediately, and stay up with him as long as I can. Mother eventually tells me to go to bed and reassures me that Daniel will be all right. I don’t know how I will fall asleep.

I eventually do drift off, and in the morning Daniel is eating and drinking. I jump up to give him a hug.

“I missed you so much. I can’t tell you how worried I was about you.” I tell Daniel.

“I missed you too, Kathleen. Mother says that you are going to stay home with me over the next few days while I recover. I don’t have to go to school for a whole extra week!” He says hoarsely, beaming.

“Oh Daniel, I love you so much.” I run over and hug him. Maybe life in America won’t be so bad.


20 years have passed, and things are finally looking up for us. My father worked for many years on the railroad, but he got drafted during the Civil War to fight for our country. While he was gone, we were able to pull through the hard times, and when he came back, we gained the trust and respect of our neighbors. After Father returned, he got a job as a police officer due to the experience he gained from the Civil War, and was able to retire at 60.

Meanwhile, Mother kept on working as a domestic servant. She worked hard until Father came home from the war, working extra hours to bring home more money. When Father came home from war, she continued to work tirelessly, and after a couple of years, she decided to retire as well. Now, she spends her time volunteering and teaching the younger children at the local Catholic Church, something she had always wanted to do ever since we arrived in America. She is enjoying a peaceful life with Father.

Daniel has grown up so much over the years. He wasn’t discouraged by the bullying at school, and he kept studying hard, which paid off in the long run. He constantly worked hard to maintain good grades in school, even though he was a victim of discrimination, and he strove to become a doctor ever since he contracted typhus. He ended up getting a scholarship to the Medical School of Maine, and worked hard to become an MD. Daniel wasn’t drafted into the Civil War like Father since they needed him to work in the hospital. While Father was gone, he stayed with Mother and kept her company, despite his studies. He still works as a doctor for the local hospital, and enjoys helping others. We found out later that the medicine Father worked so hard to get for Daniel didn’t end up helping him. It was Daniel who got better all on his own, a testament to his character. Daniel completed an extensive research project on typhus when he first started working in the hospital. The medicine that he took 20 years ago was just a bunch of ground herbs mixed in water. I’m still close to Daniel, and I am very proud of what he has accomplished.

After Daniel got better, I went to college and received a degree in teaching. I got a job as a first grade teacher in a public school, and I really enjoy educating the children. This job also helped me meet someone, a fellow teacher named George. George is very kind, and we’ve been happily married for five years now. We also had an adorable baby named Patrick, who is three years old now. We live happily in Boston, and I am still best friends with Kelly. I love my family, old and new. I’ve never felt happier, and I enjoy living in the home of stars and stripes, America.








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