Neighbor to the World by Irvin Block

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Neighbor to the World Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Block points out that Wald never considered any of her accomplishments to be private achievements, never striving for personal recognition. Social work itself, especially the way in which this work empowered others, was her only consideration. The members of the Henry Street Settlement House considered themselves to be workers rather than nurses or teachers, with Wald as the “head worker” and all of them seeking the good of the community. Thus, while Neighbor to the World will appeal to female adolescents in particular, persuading them of their opportunities to influence a broad social arena, at the same time the biography will remind them that the work itself is essentially what matters; the social worker must ensure that the work is based on principles of high morality and is thoughtfully and carefully done.

In this biography, the reader learns less about Wald than about the people whom she helped and the conditions that she improved through her work as head of the Henry Street “family.” One sees that Wald’s upper-class family connections were useful in providing funds for a public health nursing service and in guaranteeing the support of other philanthropic projects that served the poor. Yet Wald’s success, Block emphasizes, was the result of her private sympathy for and her understanding of the people whom she served. She treated each individual with respect and knew how lives were thwarted by “the system.”

The young adult reader is shown the Lower East Side of the 1890’s, “the nasty rank jungle of the city’s worst slum.” Block’s descriptive prose allows the reader to enter a dark room in a tenement where clothing is piled high for piece-work labor, including labor by children, who are often sick and wasting their lives to sew on buttons or tags and to attach artificial flowers. Readers learn about families who must sacrifice to provide for one another’s needs, deferring or giving up individual dreams and having to endure severe hardships.

Yet, in every instance, the dignity, even nobility, of the immigrants is evident—even in the primitive construction camps where laborers were herded into filthy shacks and forced to sleep on tiers of wooden bunks. Wald found an Italian laborer reading a book during a rare private moment of leisure: “He spat, pointed to the crusted bedding and dirty bunks. ‘This is America!’ he said in contempt. ‘I show you Rome!’ He pulled a photograph of the Coliseum from under his bunk.” Everywhere, the reader hears voices that refused to be subdued, voices of those who rose above their situation. Wald, through Block’s selective presentation, impresses the reader with examples of the tremendous vitality of these immigrants. Thus, Neighbor to the World allows young readers to participate in the “smaller world” of New York’s Lower East Side in such a way that the biography of Wald becomes in part a collective biography of the people who lived there from the 1890’s to the late 1930’s.

Wald enlarged upon her Henry Street experiences with her involvement in the labor movement; her membership on the Board of Sanitary Control, which set safety and sanitary regulations for factories; her involvement with the...

(The entire section is 796 words.)