In all the brouhaha over last week's Wall Street Journal article about the apparent excess of darkness in young adult literature, I didn't see a lot of people admitting the fact that some kids - and some adults - just like to read about dreadful stuff. The sweetest looking old lady in the library will come to me inquiring about Chelsea Cain's next book. The mom with a toddler on one hip and a five-year-old trailing behind is on a Jack the Ripper kick. The lacrosse goalie in her polo shirt and bouncy ponytail is looking for "something like Isaac's Storm."
Serial killers, natural disasters, industrial accidents - I should do a display or something: "Secretly Freaky Readers Recommend."
I don't mean to diminish or make light of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the terrible tragedy that is at the center of this new book. I went to grad school next door to the building that was the site of 146 deaths in 1911, the worst workplace disaster in New York City until 2001. I could look up at the top three floors of the ten-story Brown Building (called the Asch Building in 1911), and imagine the horror of being locked in a burning building, making the desperate choice between the flames or the sidewalk.
Triangle, of course, haunted New York City especially after September of 2001, when so many more had to make that awful choice. I can't believe it's been almost ten years.
You see, it's not callous to want to read about disaster. I find that the kids who are most likely to really live a book, who have the imaginative power to put themselves into the book alongside the hundreds of screaming young women in that garment factory, are the ones who want the descriptive, no-nonsense language of nonfiction and, later in life, crime fiction. If the story has its own drama, they can conjure the emotions themselves without being told what to feel.
And on to the book.
Yes, Albert Marrin (Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster, Oh Rats! The Story of Rats and People), himself a New Yorker, has written about a story that carries its own drama. He has eschewed melodramatic language in favor of straight description, and he seems to have included the voices of survivors and other participants in the labor movement as often as he could.
Further, his structure is terrific. The book begins with a glimpse into the fire, and then backtracks to a discussion of the causes and effects of immigration, including descriptions of life for the immigrant poor in Manhattan. There are lots of photographs - to put a face to the 'teeming masses' - and a few sidebars that flesh out the lives of major players. I hope that he made use of the photo libraries at the New-York Historical Society and NYPL. There are great archives of photos in NYC - I used to work in one of them, and I felt like any given picture was its own story.
The development of the garment industry and the rise of the labor movement are treated with the same emphasis on the individual, yet are deftly placed into the context of American history. I have read a lot of New York history, but this book lined things up and slotted them together - Tammany + organized crime + unions vs. Fiorello LaGuardia, for example - in ways that helped me see the bigger picture.
The post-fire sections of the book report on the reforms enacted as a result of tragedies such as this one and the ways that manufacturers have gotten around them. The windows of the software company where I worked ten years ago looked across an alley and into a giant 8th-floor room full of Asians making knockoff designer pocketbooks. Was that a union shop? Somehow I doubt it.
Marrin mentions the Chalk Project: every year on the anniversary of the fire, New Yorkers write memorials to the fallen on the sidewalk outside the Brown Building and outside each of their former homes. Pink Me reader Marjorie Ingall participates with her daughter Josie - that's her, above.
Flesh and Blood So Cheap is a little bit of a long book, but it's so interesting that I hope I will find myself recommending it to readers who love drama and true stories, as well as kids looking for a subject for a history report.
Also reviewed by Angela at Bookish Blather.
And by Gwen at Chew & Digest Books.
Nonfiction Monday hosted today at Books Together. Some really super books reviewed today, check out that post.