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Ashes of Roses

By: Mary Jane Auch


Margaret Rose Nolan is sixteen years old when her family leaves their native Ireland and comes to America in search of better opportunities.

The plan is to stay with Uncle Patrick in New York City until Da finds work, but Da has to return to Ireland because Joseph, the youngest Nolan, doesn’t pass the medical examination for entrance into the United States. Rose elects to stay in New York, and sets out with her younger sister, Maureen, to make a new life. She finds a job in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a sweatshop that exploits young immigrant girls, and Maureen is enrolled in school. Then on March 25, 1911, a fire breaks out in the shirtwaist factory, killing most of the workers. Rose is devastated at the loss of her friends and mentors, and wonders how she can possibly find the courage to stay in America, and like her friend Gussie, make a difference in the welfare of immigrant workers.


Mary Jane Auch is the author of the acclaimed pioneer trilogy, Journey to Nowhere, Frozen Summer, and The Road to Home, and is the recipient of the New York Public Library’s prestigious Knickerbocker Award. She lives in upstate New York with her husband. Her other books include I Was a Third Grade Spy and I Was a Third Grade Science Project.



Ask students to use books in the library or sites on the Internet to find out the origin of the word sweatshop. Then ask them to research migrant labor in the United States today and write a brief paper that compares the treatment of migrant workers to the “sweated trades” in the early part of the twentieth century. Discuss how laws have changed to protect workers on issues relating to child labor and better work environments.


FEAR–Ask students to trace the fear that Rose experiences from the time she arrives at Ellis Island to the end of the novel. What is the greatest fear that Rose faces? Contrast the way Rose deals with fear to the way her mother faces fear. While at Ellis Island, Rose says, “The only thing we all had in common was the fear on our faces.” (p. 25) Describe the fear that the immigrants shared.

COURAGE–Discuss the relationship between courage and fear. At what point in the novel does Rose demonstrate the most courage? What does Gussie teach Rose about courage? How does the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire give Rose the courage to speak out for the rights of women workers?

Immigrants coming to America in the early part of the century were searching for a better life. Discuss what the Nolan family expects to find. How do Margaret Rose’s hopes change from the beginning of the novel to the end? Debate what her ultimate hope might be.

FAMILY–Da is so sure that Uncle Patrick will house them when they get to America. Describe the treatment that the Nolans receive from Uncle Patrick’s family. The Nolan family is split when Joseph fails the medical tests at Ellis Island and Da has to take him back to Ireland. Discuss how this affects Mrs. Nolan. Debate the emotions that she feels when she leaves Rose and Maureen to return to Ireland. How do Gussie and Mr. Garoff become family to Rose and Maureen?

Ask the class to discuss how long it takes for Rose to feel that she really belongs in America. She makes friends with Rose Bellini and Rose Klein, two girls at the factory. How do they help satisfy Rose’s need to belong? Why does Gussie challenge Rose’s desire to do things with friends? How does Rose’s sense of belonging change at the end of the novel?

CHALLENGES–Gussie says, “Father thinks I should keep quiet, but when I see something wrong, I want to change it.” (p. 139) Discuss the things Gussie wants to change. When Mr. Garoff tells Gussie that she is fighting a battle that she cannot win, she replies, “No, Papa, we fight a battle we cannot lose.” (p. 153) Why does she feel so strongly that she cannot lose this battle? What sacrifices does Gussie make for the sake of her beliefs?


LANGUAGE ARTS–Rose promises her mother that she will write to her often. Write a letter that Rose might have written to her mother after the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occurred on March 25, 1911. Plan a special tribute to Gussie, Rose Bellini, Rose Klein, and the other workers who died on that day. Include music of the time period, original poetry and essays, and a speech delivered by Rose Nolan.

It is believed that the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 marked the turning point for the development of labor unions and labor laws in the United States. Ask students to research the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and record their contribution to labor law. Have them design a rule book for new employees that garment factories might distribute to their workers today.

The Allan Line and the Hamburg-America Line were among the ship companies that took people from Ireland to America in the early part of the twentieth century. Ask students to make a brochure advertising these ship companies. Include a description of accommodations for first-class, second-class, and steerage passengers.

Joseph Nolan doesn’t pass the medical tests at Ellis Island because he has trachoma, a serious eye disease. Ask students to research this disease and prepare a poster that might have been posted in the examining room at Ellis Island outlining the symptoms and treatment of trachoma. What other diseases were common among incoming immigrants that prevented them from staying in the country? How were they treated? Were they easily preventable? What diseases today would prevent people from being allowed into the U.S.? How does the U.S. handle cases like this? Do they help people or just send them back to their country?

Margaret Rose is very proud of the ashes of roses dress that her mother makes for her. Once she meets the girls at the shirtwaist factory, she begins to desire more fashionable clothes. Research fashion of the early 1900s and create a fashion catalog from which Rose may select clothes. Find out about the Gibson Girls (www.Gibson-girls.com) and include one of these girls on the cover of the catalog.

DRAMA– After the fire, Rose says that she and Maureen will find Uncle Patrick and tell him what happened. Divide the class into small groups and ask them to dramatize the conversation they have with Uncle Patrick. Consider how Uncle Patrick will react when he finds that the girls have been in the city all along.


Ask students to jot down unfamiliar words and try to define them, taking clues from the context of the story. Such words may include: steerage (p. 5), banshee (p. 7), chemise (p. 13), burdock (p. 22), inconsolable (p. 24), pittance (p. 28), anarchist (p. 29), wicket (p. 31), abomination (p. 44), vermin (p. 47), conceited (p. 53), blasphemed (p. 55), greenhorns (p. 68), intolerable (p. 85), harlot (p. 87), reminisce (p. 102), parapet (p. 103), irate (p. 116), novices (p. 154), nickelodeon (p. 171), and frivolous (p. 173).



Ellis Island History
This site provides the history of Ellis Island.

Leap for Life, Leap of Death
This site discusses the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
This site provides an article about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that appears in The Encyclopedia of New York City.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial
www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/triangle/trianglefire.htmlThis is an account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire trial.



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Prepared by Pat Scales, Director of Library Services, SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, Greenville.