The Triangle Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25, 1911 is familiar to Jewish feminists as the terrible event that took the lives of 146 garment workers, mostly young Jewish women. This tragedy helped empower the first generation of American Jewish women to engage politically and transform workers’ lives in this country. Indeed, this event is so foundational—and at the same time so remote—that transcending the well-known historical record to experience this moment more intimately now seems almost impossible. Yet Katharine Weber‘s self-consciously Rashomon-Iike novel, Triangle (FSG, 2006, $23.00), remarkably affords us this opportunity. Weber takes the reader deep into the imperfect memory of the last living survivor of the fire, Esther Gottesfeld, who lives her nightmare again and again. When the novel opens, Esther lies dying in a nursing home, but we hear her voice often throughout the novel—first in her recollections published by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union on the fire’s fiftieth anniversary; then in three interviews she gave to feminist historian Ruth Zion shortly before she died; and finally in the testimony she gave at the trial of the factory’s owners mere months after the fire.

The present-day action of the novel centers on Esther’s granddaughter, Rebecca; her husband, George; and their interactions with Ruth Zion after Esther’s death at the beginning of the novel. Rebecca, George, and Ruth are all unevenly drawn, strangely unsympathetic characters whose stories, though full of their own tragedies, never match the power of Esther’s.

The core of each of Esther’s retellings, interspersed throughout the modern-day narrative, is the same: On the day of the fire she was able to escape by following her boss out of a door to the roof normally barred to the workers. The door may or may not have been locked. None of her coworkers, who included her younger sister, and her fiance, recognized this escape route. After she herself was rescued, Esther watched her fiance and sister jump from the burning building to their deaths. Six months later, she bore a fatherless son.

These recollections, however, differ in their subtle details. Esther’s words are pitted against themselves in the search for the hidden truth of what really happened that horrific day, a quest initially driven by the self-interested Ruth, but eventually taken up by Rebecca and George as well.

Weber telegraphs Esther’s secret to the reader almost from the beginning; her heavy-handed cataloging of Esther’s confused memories points too obviously towards a schism in Esther’s identity as a result of the trauma she endured. Nonetheless, the conclusion of the novel is shocking and compelling; the book ends in Esther’s voice, and this time her story is so immediate that the confirmation of the secret is unexpectedly moving, and the tragedy—of the fire, of Esther, of all the women at the Triangle, of all women who worked in sweatshops then—sears us in ways that earlier chapters or the historical record wouldn’t have predicted. The Triangle Fire is that rare benchmark event that allows us as Jewish feminists to measure directly not only how far Jewish women have come in America, but also how far the social change we helped instigate has carried society. While Triangle is not intended as a yardstick, it invites us to take stock in a way we might otherwise never have done.