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Classic review: Triangle

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

By / March 25, 2011

Triangle By Katharine Weber Picador 256 pp.

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on June 20,2006.] It was in the middle of a graduate seminar on romantic literature that the professor startled us with a passing remark. "You all know, of course," he said, "that this building was the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire."

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Actually, most of us had no idea. We students had been tromping in and out of that ordinary-looking New York University classroom building for weeks and yet somehow had known nothing of its tragic past. Was that even possible? It was only later, when I found the plaque at street level, that I actually believed it.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire may no longer be top-of-thought for today's average New Yorker. But perhaps it should be. The parallels to 9/11 are striking.

On that day in 1911 almost 150 workers – mostly young women – were killed when fire broke out in a shirtwaist factory. Typical of the era, little thought had been given to safety procedures and many of those trapped died pushing against a narrow door that opened in. Others were caught by their long skirts as they tried to crawl to safety under the rows of sewing machines.

Of course their deaths were the result of negligence, not hostility. But just like 9/11, Triangle is the shocking story of workplace-turned-deathtrap. Young people who had eagerly been preparing for their weekend at one moment (most had just been paid and in minutes would have been heading home) were jumping out of ninth-floor windows at the next. And, as was the case at the World Trade Center, the aftermath was horrific. Families and friends of the victims appeared, dazed and unsure where to even begin looking for their loved ones.

All of this is vividly recounted in the first pages of Triangle, the new novel by Katharine Weber. The description Weber puts in the mouth of Esther Gottesfeld, the novel's elderly protagonist, readily evokes the horror felt on 9/11, providing plenty of dramatic context for contemporary readers.

But despite the numerous retellings of the events of that day throughout the novel, "Triangle" is not really so much a story about the fire itself. Rather, it is a story about the way that one woman remembered it – and how the vagaries of both human memory and human desire muddle what we call history (or "herstory" as Ruth Zion, the novel's annoying nebbish of an academic, a feminist studying the fire, would have it).

Esther is now 106. She recounts that she, her sister Pauline, and her fiancé, Sam, were all working at the Triangle factory on the day of the blaze. Only Esther survived.

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