Thursday, March 10, 2011

Threads and Flames by Esther Friesner

Threads and Flames is a fictional account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which occurred on March 25, 2011. This disaster forever changed the way factories treated their workers and helped to create support for workers unions and workers rights. At 4:45pm at the end of a Saturday workday, workers were in the process of leaving the building and collecting their belongings when fire broke out in the scraps of material beneath a table of sewing machines.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company had the practice of locking all the doors and searching employees at closing time to make sure they did not steal from the company. All the doors in the building opened inwards which would have disastrous consequences for those trying to flee. The company also insisted that its building was fireproof and that the fire escape at the back of the building was sufficient to evacuate the building should a fire happen. Only 27 buckets of water were available to use in dousing any initial fire.

When the fire broke out on the eighth floor, it spread quickly due to the large amounts of cloth, bins of rags, hanging patterns and sewing machine oil. Trapped by the locked doors, barred windows and a fire-engulfed stairwell, many young women chose to leap from the eighth and ninth floor windows. The other choice was to burn to death. Witnesses at the scene describe the sickening sound of body after body hitting the pavement. In all 146 people either burned to death or leapt to their death.

More than anything, it was the sight of young women leaping to their deaths that motivated people to seek changes in the fire prevention laws and also in workplace safety laws. Although the owners of the factory were prosecuted, they were acquitted because they broke no existing fire laws.

Below is a short documentary in two parts on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire:

Friesner's novel starts off slow, carefully building both setting, background and characters. We first meet thirteen year old Raisa as she is recovering from typhus. There is a foreshadowing of the future catastrophe in Raisa's life in the description of Raisa's illness:
"Raisa's world was fire. The blaze was everywhere. She was lost in the heart of the flames. Wherever she turned, walls of heat beat against her like hammers. The air throbbed and rang, filling her head with merciless thunder."

When she recovers from her illness, Raisa learns that her older sister Henda who emigrated to American 4 years earlier to escape the unwanted attentions of an obsessed suitor has saved enough money for her to come to America. We follow Raisa as she leaves the Polish shetl and her beloved Glukel, a neighbour who took care of both her and Henda after the death of their mother. On the voyage to America, Raisa befriends another young Jewish girl, Zusa Reshevsky who is joining her family in New York. She also takes on the responsibility of caring for an orphaned child, Brina whose mother dies on the voyage. Upon arriving in New York city, Raisa soon learns that Henda has vanished from the tenement house where she was last living. From the information Raisa can gather, it seems that Henda was very distraught, believing that her sister Raisa had died from typhus. Raisa's search for Henda thus becomes a subplot within the storyline.

Despite initial struggles to find a place to stay and work, Raisa and Brina eventually settle in with the Kamensky's and their son Gavrel who is studying to be a rabbi. After several months, Raisa manages to get hired on at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory as a seamstress, thus setting the stage for the tragedy. Gradually Raisa begins to fit into American society, taking extra classes to learn English and even falling in love. But is she destined to lose everything, the man she loves, even her own life when tragedy strikes?

Friesner works in many details about young immigrants coming to America, the promise and expectation of a better life and the difficulties faced due to language barriers, poverty and discrimination which help us to form an understanding of life in America at the beginning of the last century. We learn how workers were taken advantage of in sweatshops and how they organized and fought to obtain respect and decent, safe working conditions. Friesner also portrays how segregated American society was at this time, with each ethnic group having it's own insular community often prejudiced towards outsiders as well as the strong class distinctions that still existed at this time.

Ultimately, despite the tragic setting of the novel, readers will be satisfied and will have learned much about American society during the early 1900's.

Highly recommended.

Book Details:

Threads and Flames by Esther Friesner
New York: Viking Group 2010
390 pp.

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