Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin
Genre: YA Non-Fiction History
Pages: 192
Publication Date: February 2011
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Source: I read an e-galley from NetGalley.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book Description (from the publisher):
On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burst into flames.  The factory was crowded.  The doors were locked to ensure workers stay inside.  One hundred forty-six people—mostly women—perished; it was one of the most lethal workplace fires in American history until September 11, 2001.

But the story of the fire is not the story of one accidental moment in time.  It is a story of immigration and hard work to make it in a new country, as Italians and Jews and others traveled to America to find a better life.  It is the story of poor working conditions and greedy bosses, as garment workers discovered the endless sacrifices required to make ends meet.  It is the story of unimaginable, but avoidable, disaster.  And it the story of the unquenchable pride and activism of fearless immigrants and women who stood up to business, got America on their side, and finally changed working conditions for our entire nation, initiating radical new laws we take for granted today.

Flesh and Blood So Cheap, Albert Marrin has crafted a gripping, nuanced, and poignant account of one of America's defining tragedies.
I like to browse through book award lists when they come out, even if I don't often read books off of those lists. But when I saw this book on the list of finalists for the National Book Award, I was intrigued. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was devastating and sad, but the reforms that resulted from it are also very inspiring. I have always been very interested in the event, and I give a fair amount of time to discussing it in my history classes. Then I saw that NetGalley had it available for review, so I decided to give it a try.

What impressed me the most when reading this book was the way that Marrin incorporated relevant background information into a narrative not just about the fire but also about the workers, the city, the garment industry, and the sweatshops. The background information is fantastic and gives a solid base from which to better understand the setting of the tragedy. But the book explores the actual Triangle fire in less space than I expected. I think part of that feeling comes from the fact that I'm already quite familiar with the event itself and the book didn't really provide me with new information about the fire itself. But as an introduction to younger readers, or even to older readers who don't have much knowledge of the event and time period, this book does a wonderful job. The photos used in the book are also well-chosen and interesting, illustrating life in the city and providing a visual exploration of the events and people involved.

The book lost me in the last chapter, however. In the attempt to give the event wider meaning, there is a wide net thrown to show connections between it and more recent developments in the garment industry. The last chapter seemed less relevant to understanding the Triangle Fire and its more immediate consequences, so I felt like it started to go too far off-topic. And even though the author makes valid points, the last chapter was a bit preachy for my taste. Instead of reading about organized crime in the garment district in the decades following the Triangle Fire, I would have preferred to read more about the fire, its results, and the more direct consequences.

Despite not liking aspects of the last chapter and wishing there had been more space spent on the Triangle Fire and its aftermath, I do think this is a valuable book. I learned a lot about the backgrounds of immigrant workers in New York, the history of the garment industry, and the ways that the garment industry operates today in developing countries. Even though 1911 seems like ancient history to a lot of people, the world still has not learned from the lessons taught to us by the tragedy of the Triangle Fire. I would definitely suggest this book to anyone who doesn't know much about the events and people surrounding the Triangle Fire. It is well-researched and well-written, and would be an excellent introduction to the time period and the event that had such an impact on New York and the United States.

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