Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

68430392Lynn: It was a sunny Saturday, March 25, 1911.  New Yorkers were enjoying the weather in the park when they heard the fire engines racing to a ten-story building housing the Triangle Waist Company.  The top three floors were ablaze in what was to be the deadliest workplace fire for 90 years.  Albert Marrin recounts the history of this tragedy in Flesh & Blood So Cheap:  The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy (Random/Knopf 2011).  Marrin addresses so much more than the history of this horrifying event though.  He takes readers on a guided tour of immigration, the living and working conditions in the early 1900’s, the labor movement, women’s involvement in organized labor and, as the subtitle says, the legacy of the event.

I’m a history buff and have read many books about the fire and the time but I was fascinated by Marrin’s book and learned so much!  The young workers employed by the Triangle Waist Company were predominantly Jewish and Italian and Marrin traces the events that propelled these two large groups to come to America.  Also skillfully  woven into the book is the fascinating story of what working conditions were like and the struggle to improve them.  I was amazed to learn that the AFL wasn’t interested in adding female workers to their membership.  Women weren’t worth organizing because “they lacked men’s drive and fighting spirit” and were also “too emotional.”  The International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union was formed and information on this, the Mink Coat Brigade and the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand will be especially eye-opening to young readers.  Fascinating stuff and frankly, so relevant today in light of the efforts to eliminate public sector unions that are heavily female.

There is SO much more in this well-crafted book but I need to stop so Cindy will have something left to talk about.  I can’t close though without a personal thank you to Albert Marrin for providing the answer to a question that has haunted me for years.  I love tracking down the origins of common idioms and the phrase “beyond the Pale” has had me puzzled for years!  I’ve checked in every reference that comes my way and here in Marrin’s book is the answer.  For those of you who are curious too, check page 15.

Cindy: I admire this book for all the reasons Lynn states above, but I was impatient to get to the events of the fire, traumatic as I knew they would be. Sure, the Prelude chapter sets the stage, but then it is over 100 pages before the lens turns to the factory and what happened on March 25, 2011. Many of my middle schoolers have read Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch or Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix, fictional stories about the fire. Like my students I suppose, I have not read informational books about the fire and so I was eager for the details. I will be booktalking this title paired with the novels in the future and will know to urge the students to be patient. The early chapters do provide important information for understanding the turn of the century work place and the role of women and immigrants but I did keep wondering, isn’t this book supposed to be about the factory fire and its legacy? But Marrin gets there and the details are haunting…and perhaps worse, the reminder that we have short memories or fail to learn from our past. The book ends with details about the horrid conditions of current sweatshops and the horrors of other fires in which workers died due to locked exit gates and other safety violations.

Readers who want to learn more should check out this Online Exhibit from Cornell University honoring the 100th year anniversary of this tragic event. Marrin includes an exhaustive bibliography for further reading as well. A final note: the cover art with the bright colored flames licking at the sepia toned photo of the women hard at work is chilling, but perfect.

nonfiction_mondayFor more nonfiction titles go to today’s Nonfiction Monday host Telling Kids the Truth:  Writing Nonfiction for Children.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

2 Comments on "Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin"

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  1. angela.craft@gmail.com' Angela says:

    Ashes of Roses is still my go-to Triangle fire novel. I’ve been dying for a MG/YA nonfiction title since I read that novel – can’t wait to get my hands on this!!!

  2. Agreed that it took waaaay too long to get there!

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