Grace: Thoughts on Adapting Excerpts of an Early Social Science Textbook for the Stage

By Harris, Jana | TriQuarterly, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Grace: Thoughts on Adapting Excerpts of an Early Social Science Textbook for the Stage


Harris, Jana, TriQuarterly


by their fruits ye shall know them--Matthew 7:16

By Grace, I don't mean the Three Graces or a prayer before eating, but Grace Abbott, certainly one of the modern goddesses of charity. A wisp of a girl from Grand Island, Nebraska, who together with her older sister Edith and other residents of Chicago's Hull House changed the study and dispensation of social welfare as we know it. Adapting a text or source book for the stage isn't an original thought; E. B. White's Elements of Style was adapted for Broadway. But converting a section of a more than eighty-year-old sociology text into theater? As the Abbott sisters' Nebraska neighbors might have said: "That's a hard row to hoe."

Immigration, Select Documents and Case Records, by Edith Abbott (University of Chicago Press, 1924).

I stumbled on this text, the original 1924 publication authored by Edith Abbott and published by the University of Chicago, when I was doing research for a short story I was asked to write for the Washington State Council on the Humanities. (1) My interest was in the lives of immigrant children at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly those who, for whatever reason, were denied entry into the United States. As I studied the social case records of immigrants trying to avoid deportation just before, during, and after the First World War that Abbott had included in her book, I was intrigued by the interviews, letters, notes, and memoriam. They were conducted predominantly between a woman named Lydia Gardner on behalf of the family or friends of many a beleaguered immigrant trying either to come to Chicago, remain there, locate a lost relative, or get one into the country. Most of the subjects originated in Eastern Europe; a handful were from the Middle East. None spoke much if any English. Lydia's focus seemed to be the welfare of "unaccompanied" women--women without a male relative--and children detained at Ellis Island in New York.

Lydia Gardner, whoever she was, said she was employed as superintendent of the Immigrants' Protective League (2) with offices strategically located across the street from the Chicago train station. The case studies began in 1912 and continued into the early 1920s. Some of the complaints are heart-wrenching if not horrendous miscarriages of justice: A young woman who could read and write in addition to understanding three languages ordered deported for feeblemindedness. A woman blinded by a rejected suitor who had thrown vitriol in her face was not allowed to board a ship for the United States with the rest of her family. Women lost in transit between Ellis Island and Illinois. Children separated from parents and detained because of disease, mainly trachoma or ringworm. Women ordered deported because their husbands died in detention; families trying to get an aged (52!) mother into the country. Other stories were not so heart-wrenching but were contrived to cover up the traffic of women for illegal purposes. These nefarious cases Miss Gardner sniffed out like a bloodhound. But in each hardship situation, Lydia Gardner helped the client or his or her relatives mount a case against exclusion. Not all were successful. If the cases were read in chronological order, 1912 to 1918, the drums of war beat louder, and I cringed each time a young girl was ordered deported to an uncertain fate. Finally, the deportees could no longer be returned to Europe because passenger ships were prohibited from crossing the Atlantic. And because they had been excluded from the United States, some, it appears, lived on ships in the New York harbor.

Miss Lydia Gardner proceeded on each case with aplomb. More than aplomb. She proceeded with a sense of entitlement mixed with skilled diplomacy. She wrote astonishingly persuasive letters to charitable agencies who might help her client: the Jewish Women's Aid Society, the Catholic Home Bureau for Dependent Children, the Slavic Society, the Polish Home. Her appeals to government agencies--the State Board of Charities, the United States Immigration Service--were heartfelt, sincere, well-crafted, and to the point.

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