CM . . . . Volume XX Number 3 . . . . September 20, 2013
The cover illustration and flyleaf of Touched by Fire suggest that this novel will be about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. On March 25, 1911, the women's blouse factory, located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building at 23-29 Washington Place, burst into flames. One hundred and forty-six garment workers, 129 of them women ranging in age from 14 to 43, died from burning, smoke inhalation, or jumping to their deaths. Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwell exits, as a measure against pilfering, the workers were trapped. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrants.
The company owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were tried for manslaughter but acquitted. They lost a civil suit for damages, but ended up paying out only $75 per deceased person while being paid $400 per casualty by the insurance company. This tragedy spurred the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and led to a state investigation which resulted in labour legislation governing workplace conditions and hours. The disaster has inspired many films, theatre projects and literary works. (See Wikipedia.)
At first glance, Touched by Fire seems timely in light of the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh which killed so many garment workers whose products are being sold in the developed world. As it turns out, though, Irene Watts' novel is not primarily about the Triangle fire, but about the early 20th century struggle of Jewish people to find a place in the world where they would be free from persecution. Fear of death by fire is both a reality and a recurrent motif in this novel.
The story, which opens in 1905, is told in the first person by the fictional, but typical, Miriam Markov, and it follows her family on their journey from Kiev, Russia, to Berlin, Germany, and then to New York. In tsarist Russia, Jews are terrorized by Cossacks who burn their villages. The family, consisting of grandparents, parents and, eventually, three children, are worried about Miriam's younger brother, Yakov, who calls himself "Yuri" and wants to become "one of the tsar's loyal soldiers". Miriam is also troubled by the disappearance of her best friend, Malka, until she realizes that Malka and her family may have escaped Russia and gone to America.
Miriam's parents' are named "Sam" and "Sara". The word "samsara", in Sanskrit, may be translated as "suffering", or "the world as it is, full of pain and sorrow", or "the cycle of birth/death and rebirth." All of these meanings could apply to Sam and Sara Markov, and I wondered if the author was providing an additional layer of meaning for grownup readers.
Watts is talented in blending historical information smoothly into the story. One excellent example is her depiction of the Scheunenviertel or "Barn Quarter" of Berlin where the Markov family goes as the first stage of their journey out of Europe. This sector of the city was like a small town of skilled tradespeople. There, the family takes English lessons from Kolya, a youth also from Russia, who ran afoul of the police for attending a political lecture. While attempting to leave Russia, Kolya's father was killed by a border guard. Of a recent pogrom in which a village was burned to the ground, Kolya says that the villagers had "done nothing except be what they are, who we are - Jews." Young Yuri, who now aspires to be a soldier in the Kaiser's army, says that "Kaiser Wilhelm will never let it happen here." Kolya informs him that the kaiser, the tsar's cousin, is a well-known hater of Jews. Mr. Markov adds: "In America, my son, no one will burn us."
Yuri does not immigrate to America. Concern over his fate keeps readers reading - a clever authorial ploy. Watts also demonstrates her storytelling skill by varying the form of narration; she presents letters from America, first from Mr. Markov, then from Miriam - a great device for conveying information about steerage travel and life on the Lower East Side.
In her new neighbourhood, Miriam makes a friend, Beckie, who works at the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory and who urges Miriam to seek work there. There, Miriam is joyfully reunited with Malka who had indeed left Russia for America.
Watts carefully lays the groundwork for the Triangle factory tragedy, using Beckie to convey information about the location of the entrances, the floors the factory occupied and the two freight elevators (instrumental in saving some workers). Miriam mentions her pocketbook being searched at closing time (an indication of the owners' concerns about theft which led them to lock the doors.) Watts' account of fire shows her research into historical accounts.
The rest of the novel and epilogue are about family reunification. The epilogue, set in 1933 Berlin, is vital to Watts' total picture of Jewish persecution, a story incomplete without mention of Hitler and the Holocaust. The epilogue is narrated by 10-year-old Peter Schmidt, stepson of an anti-Semitic SS officer. The fire motif continues: Peter is terrified by the Nazi book burning in Opera Square and the chanting of "Burn the Jews." His rescue provides a satisfying ending and allows Watts to tell us what happened to the major characters.
Near the end of Touched by Fire, Miriam says: "When Yuri and I were children, your grandfather used to say, 'In America, they don't let you burn.'" Miriam (and Watt) are saying, of course, that America is not a totalitarian regime which persecutes its citizens as a matter of official state policy. Yet Miriam's remark undercuts the horror of the Triangle fire where human error and negligence did result in deaths by fire in America.
Touched by Fire is a worthwhile, engaging novel about the immigrant experience in early 20th century America. It would be interesting to read another novel about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire from a labour history point of view.
Ruth Latta's young adult novel, The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, firstname.lastname@example.org) is set in 1957.
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