Thursday, April 18, 2013

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its Legacy

 America has a long and storied history filled with triumph, adversity and plenty of tragedy.  This nation has given new life to many an immigrant but it has taken away in equal measure.  This book, Flesh and Blood so Cheap is the story of both the greatest and the worst sides of the American immigrant dream.

In the first years of the twentieth century America was in the midst of its second great wave of immigrants from Europe, this paired with the exponential increases in technological capability created conditions in which sweat shops flourished and wage-slavery held new immigrants in poverty.  One of the greatest tragedies that came out of these conditions was the fire at the Triangle Shirt-Waist factory in which hundreds of young immigrant women, as young as thirteen, worked for 14 hours a day.  This fire held the record as the most lethal workplace fire in New York's history killing 146 people, not until September 11, 2001 was that record topped.

Marrin has done an excellent job of framing this story in a way that has the potential to hold the interest of a teen reader.  It feels somewhat like a history textbook at times but this is mostly because of the historical accuracy of it.  Marrin starts with a teaser, introducing the reader to the tragedy to captivate our interest, and then backs up to begin with the full immigrant story.  He pulls us into the old country where Russian Jews and southern Italians had a hard life and dreamed of better opportunities in America, and then we follow them on their journey packed like cattle into steam ships, a journey so rough that some would not survive it.  Once in America he paints a beautiful and lively picture of the immigrant neighborhoods and both the joys and difficulties of life within them.  Now that we have the back story he begins to explain the garment industry and the hold that it had on new immigrant workers and how, back then, there were no workplace regulations and an employer was free to treat an employee as poorly as they liked.  Young women worked in unsanitary, unsafe and exhausting  conditions, factory owners often locked the doors to keep them from coming in late or leaving early.  these locked doors caused most of the deaths at the triangle factory.

The subject matter that he takes on here is something that every American needs to understand, especially
young people.  He takes on the history of injustice that has cast a shadow on our nations past and still exists today and introduces the reader to the grassroots efforts that allowed these immigrants to pull themselves up
from poverty, forcing the factory owners and the corrupt city government to take accountability for their actions.  After the fire the immigrant workers used the fledgling workers unions to stage a strike and try to make change in their workplace.  It was a long and grueling process but in the end, changes were made. But, the part of his message that I found most crucial and oddly refreshing was that he did not ignore that tragedy HAD to occur before that change could be made, 146 young immigrants died in the fire, more would be brutalized by mobsters during the strike and Marrin contends that these were unavoidable evils when one is trying to enact change at this level.

He does not stop after the strikes success, calling it a happily ever after, instead he continues the story to present day and the controversy over sweat shop conditions in developing nations.  He talks about the conflicting positions that people take regarding these sweat shops, some believing its horrifying and reprehensible while others believe that it is good for the people in these nations (working in a sweatshop offers them a higher wage than any other job available to them).  He leaves the reader pondering the idea that such things, sweatshops and tragedy, are the only way for developing nations to rise, on the backs of their poorest citizens.  This is how America rose to its position in the world, but at the same time, the tragedy and hardships of this nation are the source of our national spirit and belief that we can rise up from any hardship because it has been done so many times in our past.

Overall, I thought this was a fantastic story, well written and engaging, though not for a reluctant reader, it can be very factual and slow at times if you are not a history buff, probably best for high school kids if read on their own.  I would recommend for any US History or Civics and Economics class.  It offers a refreshing format with its talk about mobsters and firsthand accounts from people who lived through those events.  There were a lot of interesting tid-bits like the origination of the word 'girl' this was an identifier given to young women who worked in factories.  The pictures throughout the book help to humanize the story and remind the reader that this really happened to real Americans.  There was a lot of good insight into the democratic process by way of the unions, strikes, appeals to city government and his discussion of government corruption. It also ties the events of the past to our present time and the way that we understand our future ( a great tool for answering the question 'why do we have to study history?').   Last but not least it shows young people that any obstacle is passable, but you have to be willing to work and sacrifice to make it happen.

The History Channel's series 'Story of Us' covers this time in US history and includes a segment on the fire.
just the segment is available on Youtube.
or the whole series is available to buy at The History Channel.

1 comment:

Leslie Shambo said...

I used to work in New York, and frequently passed the old Triangle Shirt-Waist factory regularly, so I would be very interested in reading this book. Just a few years ago, a century after the tragedy, some of the survivors spoke on a panel about the immigrant women who worked at the factory, the fire itself, and the social changes that resulted. I didn't attend, but remember seeing the advertisements in the area.

I find it interesting, though, that the author suggests the fire HAD to happen for changes to occur. While it is true that the tragedy is credited with better working conditions for laborers, I wonder how the victims and family members would feel, reading a statement that implied the tragedy was necessary. I tend to disagree that death is an unavoidable evil when one is trying to enact change. The disaster at the Triangle Shirt-Waist Factory certainly propelled the movement forward, but we really can't say that change would have not have come eventually.

For those of you interesting in learning a bit more about the fire and its victims, there is a great video on YouTube in which one of the victims' grandsons talks about :

It would be a great tool for the classroom as well!