Katharine Weber

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 genetic researcher.

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.

  From Issue:11.02
Reviewed by: Jeannette M. Hartman
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