Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2021

Triangle, by Katharine Weber

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire with its eerie resonances to 9/11 and a recent documentary to mark its anniversary, is well-known in New York.  But I had never heard of it until it was mentioned in a course about Yiddish Women writers that I took through the Melbourne Jewish Museum. One of the stories we read referenced Jewish girls migrating from the shtetl to work in the garment factories of New York.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City, on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city, and one of the deadliest in U.S. history.  The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers – 123 women and girls and 23 men – who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Italian or Jewish immigrant women and girls aged 14 to 23; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was 43-year-old Providenza Panno, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone and Rosaria “Sara” Maltese.

The factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building, at 23–29 Washington Place, near Washington Square Park. The 1901 building still stands today and is now known as the Brown Building. It is part of and owned by New York University.

Because the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked—a common practice at the time to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft—many of the workers could not escape from the burning building and jumped from the high windows. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

The building has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.  (Wikipedia, viewed 31/7/21, lightly edited to remove superfluous links and footnotes)

Although based on this real-life historical event, Triangle is not an historical novel nor (despite its back-cover blurb) a ‘mystery’, (which might account for some of the disappointment seen in Goodreads reviews).  It is an exploration of truth, a satire of dour, misdirected feminism, and an homage to the dead.  This is the blurb:

Esther Gottesfeld is the last living survivor of the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire and has told her story countless times in the span of her lifetime. Even so, her death at the age of 106 leaves unanswered many questions about what happened that fateful day. How did she manage to survive the fire when at least 146 workers, most of them women, her sister and fiancé among them, burned or jumped to their deaths from the sweatshop inferno? Are the discrepancies in her various accounts over the years just ordinary human fallacy, or is there a hidden story in Esther’s recollections of that terrible day? Esther’s granddaughter Rebecca Gottesfeld, with her partner George Botkin, an ingenious composer, seek to unravel the facts of the matter while Ruth Zion, a zealous feminist historian of the fire, bores in on them with her own mole-like agenda. A brilliant, haunting novel about one of the most terrible tragedies in early-twentieth-century America, Triangle forces us to consider how we tell our stories, how we hear them, and how history is forged from unverifiable truths.

The book begins with a poem called ‘Shirt’, followed by the fictional Esther’s account of the fire, ‘transcribed’ from her recollections for a 1961 commemorative booklet.  It is is vivid, and horrifying: the sudden explosion, the rapid spread of fire across the overcrowded room, the smell and the smoke and the girls trapped by their long skirts as they tried to crawl under the tables to the door, which could not be opened.  The firemen’s ladders were too short to reach the ninth floor, and the net with which they tried to catch the girls who jumped from the windows wasn’t strong enough.  Esther, who remembered another door that the girls were never supposed to use, escaped upstairs and across a perilous ladder to an adjacent building.

I had to sit down on the curb, I was weak, and there was blood running past me over my shoes, it was water from the fire hoses mixed with blood, it was like a river of blood running past me, it was so terrible, and I just sat there letting it run over my shoes and I couldn’t even open my mouth anymore like I forgot how to talk English and I just watched.  Everywhere on the street there was money.  Coins from everyone’s pockets, because it was payday and so in their pockets and their stockings they had their money, and it fell out from the pay packets or wherever they were carrying it, and it was all over the street.  They told us before we came here, in America the streets are paved with gold, and this day it was true, but so terrible, to see this money in the gutter.  For what did they work so hard, but to have this money? (p.12)

Chapter Two, however, brings the reader to the present day.  We read about the eccentric genius George Botkin, who composes music which translates molecular structures such as DNA into melodies.  George is the long-term boyfriend of Esther’s granddaughter Rebecca and he sits and sings with her as Esther comes to the end of her very long life in a nursing home. Rebecca and George are very fond of each other but what holds them back from marriage is George’s genetic heritage of Huntingdon’s Disease, the consequences of which they know only too well because of Rebecca’s counselling work in clinical genetics.  The strength of their relationship, however, is what enables them to deal with Ruth Zion, a feminist academic who is determined to shoehorn Esther’s horrific experience into her own agenda.

Chapters Four and Seven are ‘transcripts’ of Ruth’s interviews with Esther, fossicking around the inconsistencies in Esther’s story.  Esther gets quite testy with Ruth, and from her conversations and behaviour with Rebecca, we can see why.  Author of “Gendered Space in the Workplace, Past, Present and Future” and her forthcoming 812-page ‘Out of the Frying pan: Women and Children last’ Ruth is insensitive, bombastic, unprincipled, long-winded and often laugh-out-loud funny though that is not what she intends.

Although I was fascinated by the descriptions of George’s music, I didn’t understand what it had to do with what I thought was the main theme until the last chapter.  It’s a description of his ‘Triangle Oratorio’, and this narrative is interwoven with Esther’s voice that the audience never hears.

The critics would, in the days, months, and years ahead, call the Triangle Oratorio ‘a uniquely postmodern amalgamation’ with a ‘melodic inventiveness’ and a ‘powerfully searing narrative impact’ that gives it a ‘bold complexity and authenticity’ that honours the lives lost to the Triangle factory fire with a ‘vigorous affirmation that is both elegiac and celebratory.’ There would be comparisons to Gershwin, to Copland, and yes, to Mendelssohn.  But on the actual night of March 25, at the Isaac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, with every seat occupied, the 2,804 souls present have no such fine analytic words.  The audience that night has no words at all as the music sweeps over the and blasts them and scorches them.  (p.227)

George’s music makes people hear what it was like.  They hear the machinery, the explosion, and the shouting men and crying women as the chorus of 146 voices rages and begs and pleads and rages again, and the glorious, terrible, destroying music soars around them.  They hear the drums crash together with a boom, boom, boom for each body as it falls, down and down and down, and despairing music darkens the Stern auditorium. 

This is very powerful writing, and Esther reliving events from her deathbed, takes her story to the grave.

Get hold of a copy of it if you can.  My libraries didn’t have it, but I was able to buy a copy online.

Author: Katharine Weber
Title: Triangle
Publisher: Picador, 2006
ISBN: 9780312426149, pbk, 242 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond


Responses

  1. How fascinating. How did you hear about this book, Lisa?

    I read one of Katharine Webber’s novels years ago and loved it. It was called ‘The Music Lesson’ and I see in my review that I mention she had written a novel called ‘Triangle’.

    Like

    • The Zoom class about Yiddish women writers included participants from the US and Canada, and so when the subject of garment workers came up, someone mentioned the fire, and I Googled it and saw there was a book…
      I’m going to see if I can find more of her books.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you very much for this astute characterization of my novel!

    http://www.katharineweber.com

    Like

    • Thanks, Katharine, I’ll be reading more of your work:)

      Like


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