On March 25, the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist
Factory Fire will be observed. The fire, which broke out near closing time on a
Saturday afternoon, killed 146 workers, mostly women, many of whom jumped to
their deaths to escape the flames. It was the 9/11 of its time.
The tragedy spurred major reforms in working conditions in New York Cityís
sweatshops and helped unions gain acceptance.
The book Triangle tells the story in three voices. Esther Gottesfeld, the last
living survivor of the fire at 106, is heard from only indirectly through
interviews and trial transcripts. She has kept key secrets for a lifetime. Ruth
Zion is a self-serving feminist researcher with a nose for missing information
and an astute ability to suggest what fits into the blanks. Internationally
renowned composer George Botkin marries Estherís granddaughter, Rebecca, a
As Ruth digs into the story, asking questions about how Esther survived when her
sister and fiancť didnít, and what her role had been during the trial against
the factory owners, George and Rebecca are impelled to do their own
investigation to find the answers before Ruth.
That investigation changes George, Rebecca and their relationship. After years
of living together, they decide to marry and ultimately adopt a Chinese baby.
Georgeís compositions are based on mathematical and biological sequences and
patterns. His composition ultimately gives expression through music to the
profound losses that arose from the fire.
Katharine Weber made her debut with the novel Objects in the Mirror Are Closer
Than They Appear. Her other works include True Confections, The Little Women and
The Music Lesson. Triangle won the 2007 Connecticut Book Award for Fiction and
was a finalist for the 2007 John Gardner Fiction Book Award and the 2007
Paterson Fiction Prize.
While Triangle is lyrically written, it leaves some jangling notes for the
reader. A significant portion of the book is devoted to Botkin and how he
composed music. At a certain point, Triangle reads as if it were two small books
that have been pasted together.
Ruth Zion is painted as a repelling, cartoonish, self-absorbed woman. George and
Rebecca fight her attempts to answer some haunting questions about the fire. For
example, the women who worked in the factory were mostly poor immigrants. Who
took care of their children while they worked? Is there a chance that they
brought their children with them, and that the children perished in the fire?
Were the owners and managers of the factory guilty of more than life-threatening
working environments and slavery like conditions?
The tension between an individualís right to privacy and the value of full
revelation of the facts about a major tragedy is taut in this book. The short
shrift that Weber gives Ruth Zion seems to suggest that she feels some facts are
better hidden than revealed.
This is an interesting book to read as the anniversary of the fire approaches.
Reading a non-fiction account as well would be a better tribute to those whose
lives were turned upside down by this tragedy. Much more will be told about this
harrowing event, no doubt, as the 100th anniversary approaches in 2011.