I read this one in two sittings, a week or two apart. Once you pick it up, it’s an aborbing read as much for as its horrors as its way of making history come alive. But it’s not exactly cheerful reading for a lunch break, so it sat around my living room for a while before getting picked up again.
I’d argue that the story isn’t as much about the Triangle Fire as it is about social conditions that led up to the fire and reforms attempted in the aftermath of the fire. The horrifying events of the fire really only take up about a chapter – it was a quick and deadly.
But to explain how something like this happens, Marrin takes us back through history to set up the day of the fire. He talks about why so many southern Italians and Eastern European Jews came to New York at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, why they worked the jobs they did, and how they lived. He describes changes in the manufacture of clothing, the advent of new technologies and changes in fashion that led to tenement-based sweatshops and later larger operations like the Triangle Waist Factory.
Having set the scene for why there were so many young women working long hours in these factories, he layers in issues like workplace safety – the practice of locking-in workers to deterr late-comers and prevent workers from leaving, the fact that fire-prevention devices had been invented (like overhead sprinklers) but that factory owners weren’t required to use them. In fact, it was more cost-effective to let buildings burn (and the workers in them – there were always more willing to take the jobs) and collect insurance than to take pains to prevent fires. The scene is also set with an account of the garment workers’ strike prior to the fire
Following the fire, Marrin takes us through changes in politics and policies in New York related to the garment industry – some of the immediate aftermath shows the changes brought about by the fire, but the further we get into the 20th century, the less the information seems relevant to the fire (particularly the discussion of organized crime). The final chapter briefly covers how our clothes are made today and the fact that Triangle-like conditions still exist in sweatshops.
These present-day accounts are a chilling footnote to the story, but here Marrin’s tone becomes a bit more opinionated, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves. Throughout the book, in fact, he’s prone to a rather grandiose tone that frequently took me out of the story. The facts he presents are gripping enough without the use of over-wrought language.
Audience is a tricky question for this one – I would say middle school and high school, depending on the reader’s comfort level with occasionally gruesome descriptions. Because the book is so chock-full of different pieces of history, it could be useful to kids researching anything from immigration to working conditions to women’s rights, or for readers interested in the context of the fire.
Source: my public library