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This was an Honor book for the YALSA Excellence in Non-Fiction award. I had never heard of Ida. M Tarbell before opening the pages of this book, but the subtitle certainly intrigued me.

This book did not grab me from the beginning. It takes place during a time in history that I have not found particularly interesting. I’m sure that has more to do with the way I was taught the history than the era itself. Ida’s childhood did not interest me, and I really did not find her interesting until she started writing. I wanted to see how she took down big business, not how she grew up.

After a couple of chapters, however, I was hooked. Here was this woman, doing what she wanted to do, uncovering secrets about some of our country’s first celebrity millionaires. During her life, Ida wrote about and befriended a number of important people of her time. She traveled and interviewed world leaders. She remained single, devoting herself to her work and later to the care of her family. So much of her story still rings true because nearly a century later, we are facing the same challenges in society. From page 208:

‘Human affairs seemed to me to be headed for collapse. …What I most feared was that we were raising our standard of living at the expense of our standard of character.’ She observed that local individuality was being smoothed over by a homogenizing culture in America. ‘Standardization is the surest way to destroy the initiative, to benumb the creative impulse… essential to the vitality and growth of democratic ideals.’

I’ve been some version of this argument my entire life, and while it often sounds like nostalgia gone overboard, the natural process of progress, it’s beginning to seem more like a worthy fight, an issue we shouldn’t be complacent about. Despite Ida’s insistence on living in a man’s world by the men’s rules, she was a contradiction in that she did not support many aspects of the women’s rights movement, including the right for women to vote.

The author did a great job of pulling out relevant quotes and providing the context that went with Ida’s life and decisions. She tells the story of a stubborn, intelligent woman who is also contradictory in many of her beliefs and actions. After reading this book, I plan to read some of Ida’s work firsthand.

A few quotes that I noted:

The virile, piratically mustachioed Rogers excited Ida‘s fervent regard. p. 135

She told her readers that a man with Rockefeller’s influence could not be permitted to “live in the dark.” His philanthropies, for example, were not simple good works; they gave him enormous influence over which aspects of American life would thrive.  p. 147

Smith also pledged to end Prohibition, which Ida thought was a foolish and pernicious law. …explaining that she believed in obeying the law and that Prohibition invited people to flout it. P. 218

Title: Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business–and Won!
Author: Emily Arnold McCully
Pages: 288
Age level: YA
Illustrated: Yes, photographs and drawings
Who I would give this book to: Students looking for a biography, those interested in the time period or in journalistic history. Though it looks long, the pages are thick, the font is larger, and there are plenty of pictures.
Setting: Historical, various places
Favorite Character: Sam, because of his exuberance and stubbornness and utter inability to see that anything bad would happen
Favorite Moment: Ida struggling in France to be a writer
Rating: 3 stars
Book Source: Library