Before 9/11 was the fire at Triangle
A new novel sets an examination of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in today's New York.
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."
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 protagonists, 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.
Esther's memories are offered in the form of various testimonies she has given over the years of the events of that day. These accounts alternate with the present day tale of Rebecca, Esther's granddaughter, and her charming man-child boyfriend George who is also a sort of genius composer. (His unlikely oeuvre is a collection of molecular structures translated into melodies – music with the power to cure colds or bring on childbirth.)
There are some unresolved mysteries about Esther's account of the fire – inconsistencies that have been noted over the years – and no one is hotter to unravel these than our pushy friend the feminist academic (whose tome "Gendered Space in the Workplace, Past, Present and Future" sounds as tedious as its author).
But even as Zion irks Rebecca and George, she manages to intrigue them: Why isn't Esther's story entirely consistent? Is she concealing something that happened that day?
Readers of Weber's earlier novels (including "The Little Women," "Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear," and "The Music Lesson") will find much that is familiar in "Triangle" (including a character – Patricia Dolan from "The Music Lesson" makes a cameo appearance here).
Weber excels at a kind of fully realized, three-dimensional fiction. Her characters live, breathe, and inhabit very convincing spaces. When gravel squeaks under their feet as they walk, we hear it. When they banter about where to have dinner, we almost hope to come along.
Weber's prose also has a pleasing economy and elegance and the devices by which "Triangle" cuts from present to past are never less than deft and surefooted.
But the book is sometimes just a bit too clever for its own good. The characters in "Triangle" do a lot of talking about patterns, particularly in relation to George's music. Such conversation is clearly linked to Esther's testimony – a symphony with minor variations that a careful reader needs to attend to – but it all becomes a bit self-conscious and detached, to the point that it takes some of the juice out of the story.
"Triangle" is neatly plotted and embedded with sufficient clues to allow a diligent reader to unravel most of Esther's mystery far too easily. But when the denouement does arrive, there's just not quite enough "there" there.
And yet, "Triangle" remains highly readable and even rather haunting. Weber's own connection to the Triangle factory is more than just theoretical – her grandmother worked there before the fire. Setting a fictional investigation of the tragedy at Triangle in a post-9/11 New York gives the retelling of those events an urgency that it would be hard to otherwise achieve. To borrow from Weber herself, "Triangle" serves to remind us that the events of the past are often closer than they appear.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.