Monday, August 22, 2011

Triangle of history

In packing for my recent family excursion to the east coast I packed reading material, of course. (And before I go on, I must congratulate myself on not packing, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, ridiculously too much reading material.) One of the books I read was Katherine Weber's Triangle, a novel that explores--in sort of a mystery novel approach--the long term effects of the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York in 1911. I've been curious about this novel for several years, ever since I heard book reviewer Maureen Corrigan raving about it on NPR's Fresh Air program. I had tried to "read" it via audio book earlier this summer after downloading the title from to my iTunes library. Turns out I hadn't downloaded Weber's novel, but a nonfiction account of the fire and its effect on New York and national politics. I was quite disappointed by my mistake, but then I quckly found the book I downloaded--Triangle: The Fire that Changed America (2003) by David Von Drehle--to be engrossing and thoroughly informative.

When I turned to Weber's novel I wondered how different her fictional account of the fire would be fron Von Drehle's nonfiction study. I hoped that what I learned from Von Drehle would not color how I responded to Weber's imaginative recreations. Well, I need not have worried. As I quickly discovered, Weber's novel is almost entirely different from Von Drehle's straightforward narrative account. In fact, it took quite some time for the fire to play a central role in the novel, although increasingly it does, especially after one passes the halfway point. The novel is actually not at all what I expected it to be, but that's my fault more than Weber's. Triangle is fundamentally a contemporary novel rather than an historical one; yet it's a novel that tries to show how a single event in history can still affect individuals decades later, and in completely unexpected ways. The novel's main character is not the fire, nor is it even Esther Gottesfield, a fictional survivor of the Triangle factory tragedy who lives to be over a 100. The main characters are Rebecca Gottesfield, Esther's granddaughter, and George Botkin, Rebecca's significant other and a richly successful musical composer, best known for his musical portraits of famous individuals, compositions derived from studying those individuals' DNA. (A genuinely curious idea but one that Weber explores ad infinitum before she truly lets her novel start.) Over the course of the novel, Esther dies, Rebecca and George discover secrets about Esther's past, and finally they decide that for Esther's "protection" they will not reveal what they know.

I'm not terribly sympathetic with Rebecca and George's urge for, and rationalization of, this secrecy; nor is the "secret" all that difficult to figure out given the hints Weber provides. George, not Rebecca, realizes the truth--many many pages after the reader does. This was a bit disconcerting; also disconcerting was how much of the novel, a great big early chunk of it, Weber gives over to describing George's career as a composer before she finally gets down to the business of telling her story, and highlighting the fire. Weber does, however, show terrific familiarity with the facts of the fire--Weber's grandmother actually worked in the factory for a time--and appears to slip up only once, when she has Esther Gottesfield relate that a fireman helped her onto the roof of the Asch building (the building that housed the Triangle factory) when she made her escape from the fire. As I learned from Von Drehle, back in 1911 there was no way for firemen to get to the roof of a building as tall as the Asch building without climbing up through the inside. And to do that they had to put out the fire. This they did, but not before 146 people lost their lives, many as a result of jumping out of windows. The firemen arrived at the upper floors only minutes too late to help those trapped there, but those minutes meant everything. If they had been able to make it to the roof to help Esther Gottesfield, they also could and would have saved many more people. Now, Esther proves to be an unreliable historian when it comes to the fire, so perhaps this little error is meant by Weber to be a tip off. If true, then I say fair enough. Because I should credit Weber for how carefully she uses known facts about the fire, including real people from history, as well as facts about the trial that followed as a result, and how she uses these facts to help create a mystery that George and Rebecca (or at least George) finally crack. Once history becomes relevant to the novel, it becomes engaging and a very worthwhile read, with an interesting and admirable structure. But boy did it take a while for history to get there.


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