(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

One-hundred and forty-six workers, mostly young women immigrants, perished when flames engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1911. The factory, on the seventh, eighth, and ninth floors of the Asch building, was overcrowded with workers and their materials. Only one exit door was unlocked; fire apparatus reached only to the sixth floor. David Von Drehle blends scholarly research and a narrative style, enabling him to report the social and political milieu of the fire and the trial that follows with journalistic immediacy in Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.

Von Drehle also brings the victims to life. He assimilates enough detail about several to change them from the corpses he describes in the book’s tabloid-like opening to real people. They come from the immigrant tides arriving at Ellis Island and are among the poorest inhabitants of New York. They work long hours in brutal conditions and dream of better lives ahead. Some are involved in the workers’ movement that strikes over and over again for improvements in working conditions. This book gives the fire’s victims the historical place they have earned.

They and the fire are strong forces behind the progressive reform of the American workplace. Von Drehle shows that, ironically, those who control New York politics in both the pre- fire era and resist reform, and the later reformers, come from the same immigrant population as the workers. The two most prominent are Robert Wagner and Alfred E. Smith.

Most significant is Von Drehle’s conclusion that women as strikers, strike leaders, and powerful reformers were a key element in changing America during this period.

Review Sources

America 189, no. 11 (October 13, 2003): 28-31.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 11 (June 1, 2003): 797.

Library Journal 128, no. 8 (May 1, 2003): 136.

The New Leader 86, no. 4 (July/August, 2003): 20-21.

The New York Times, August 31, 2003, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review, September 7, 2003, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 20 (May 19, 2003): 59.