2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
More than just about a fire,
This review is from: Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (Paperback)
"Triangle" described the 1911 fire at the Triangle Waist Company where 146 workers perished, which was New York City's worst workplace disaster until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Von Drehle is a gifted writer and makes history come alive in his retelling of this fire that killed with such swiftness: The blaze did its deadly work in less than 15 minutes from start to finish.
I bought this book because I have long been interested in stories of infamous fires (beginning as a 10-year old reading a now out of print book about the Coacoanut Grove fire). Thus, one of the aspects of the book I found personally somewhat disappointing is that it got off to a rather slow start, with the first 115 pages devoted to a history of such topics as immigration in New York City in the early 1900s, Tammany Hall, and the strike by shirtwaist workers. I understand that Von Drehle's motivation by providing this history was to place the Triangle Fire in the larger cultural context so as to render understandable how such neglect of safety issues was tolerated in those days. Providing this detail thus makes the book educational rather than sensationalistic, and I found myself learning a lot. However, the bottom line is that I bought the book because I wanted to learn about a famous fire and not particularly about the labor history of New York in the 1900s.
That having been said, it is a testament to Von Drehle's writing ability that he was able to make what could have been dry history riveting enough to keep me going through 115 pages until the part on the fire began. Through painstaking research of original sources, he was able to find enough detail about individual workers so that the reader sees their deaths for the personal tragedies they were and not just another workplace statistic. His prose at times was beautiful and poignant. Take, for example, this sentence (p. 138) describing the recollection of one of the survivors of the fire: "...he saw 'five or six girls falling from the windows.' They seemed to start out just a few feet below him, barely out of reach, but then they dropped into space and got smaller and smaller until the world, for them, came to a sudden end." This book serves an important function of making sure that the victims of the Triangle Fire are not forgotten. More important, the book provides a vivid reminder that the safeguards most Americans enjoy in their workplaces today to ensure that such a disaster never happens again came with a terrible price.