Threads and Flames

Katherine Longshore Reply Thursday, January 13, 2011
On March 25, 1911, New York City saw the deadliest industrial disaster in its history.

THREADS AND FLAMES, by Esther Friesner, is the fictional story of one of its survivors.

Raisa is a thirteen-year-old orphan, raised by a family friend in a shtetl in Poland.  In 1910, she makes her own way to America, to New York City, to find her older sister in a land where the streets are paved in gold.  Along the way, she acquires friends and a five-year-old ward, and arrives in New York, where the streets are not paved with gold, but with garbage, and her sister is nowhere to be found.  But luck is with her and she gets lodging with a sweet family and a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

As the tagline of Friesner’s book says, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire changed the country – and Raisa’s world – forever.

This novel is rich with cultural details of life in Poland and New York at the turn of the last century.  It describes well the struggle of anonymity and other-ness Raisa faces on her own at a young age.  And the vivid images Friesner conjures of the horror of the fire itself recount that tragedy with grace and assurance and great consideration of the victims.

I read this book with great interest, already knowing a little of the history behind it.  That the fire led to the creation of labor unions and the improvement of safety standards.  That it led women to fight for themselves and for their rights, not to be treated as thieves or cattle locked on the 9th floor of a garment factory.

What makes me sad is that history repeats itself, as it did in Dhaka, Bangladesh a few weeks ago.

The Triangle tragedy is a timely story.  A thought-provoking one.  And Raisa’s background adds depth and humanity to it one hundred years later.

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