I had heard of the Triangle factory fire and the locked doors and that it changed labor law and I think the union movement. But reading the book made it so much more harrowing.
Although the book gets off to a slow start in setting up the political background, that background is necessary. I have not yet finished it, but the fire is finished along with 146 workers’ lives.
David Von Drehle provides a look at factory life, and the book starts to get more interesting. The vignettes about various people add to its life. It is interesting that the owners of the factory started out as immigrants just like their workers. And as is so often the case, they are satisfied to be owners and are not thinking of reaching to pull others up with them. One learns about Russian Jewish immigrants, and how their backgrounds prepared them to organize, and about Italian immigrants fleeing natural disaster.
It is one thing to know, somewhat abstractly, that a fire occurred and workers were trapped and killed. But once details of some workers’ lives are given, the tragedies become real, and I felt anger at the fire escape that did not lead to the outside, at the inspections promised but not followed up on, and at the doors that not only opened to the inside, but also were locked. I felt the fear and despair of the workers who had to run through flames to get to the roof.
The author describes the fire floor by floor, eighth, tenth, and ninth. He helpfully links what was happening on tenth to what had happened at the same time on eighth, etc, to keep us oriented. The fire lasted 30 minutes. It is difficult to imagine so much action happening in that short time or a blaze intensifying so much. The author compensates for this by reminding us after long descriptions that only three minutes have gone by, or whatever number is relevant.
And now to read to the end.