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Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Review: Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle, narrated by Barrett Whitener


June is National Audiobook Month so I thought I needed to hurry up and finish this audio, which is always a good idea. They don't work as well strung out over weeks and months as when you listen to them in a shorter period of time.

This book was pretty good, but not great. I really liked the middle third that was about the actual fire. The first third, talking about the various workers' rights movements and protests and unionizing was just not as interesting to me. I suppose I should have expected it as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is "the Fire That Changed America," but I don't read books like this to find out the political and social outcomes of disasters. I read them for the disasters themselves. But Triangle was different in that way. As a result of this fire, laws were changed, the enforcement of laws were changed, politics changed, and not just in New York but everywhere. Before this, owners thought doing fire drills would scare the workers and make them anxious. They didn't want to install sprinklers because they cost money, and then they'd have no more excuse for middle-of-the-night, end-of-the-season, overstock fires that hurt no one and paid out insurance money. The insurance industry was able to charge ridiculous amounts and the agents got a cut of those policies so the bigger the better for them. Everyone who could have made changes had a stake in the current way of doing business not changing. That's a classic situation for the government to step in and make people do the right thing. (Also changes to the way insurance policies worked would have eventually done it in a free-market way, but not soon enough apparently, and it's doubtful without additional loss of life.)

But what I enjoyed was the stories of the people. The poor, immigrant workers who were waiting to meet a fiance or chatting with a girlfriend when the fire broke out. I liked hearing their backstories, which there weren't enough of, how they often were the sole support of their families here and also sent money back to family in Europe. Some families lost more than one member in that fire. I wish this had been more extensive. But I geuss there's not as much reason for that level of detailed and painstaking research when you have a trial and reams of sociological data to discuss. Bummer. I think I will stick to tragedies with no good outcomes and also ones less well-known, as those seem to be much more personal and story-driven, which is what I read them for. (If you're looking for some of these, check out The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan, The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, Ship Ablaze by Edward T. O'Donnell, or The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin.) I was glad to have some of the rumors dismissed, such as only 1 door was locked, the the elevators each made 3 trips up to rescue people before the fire so damaged them that they couldn't move anymore. It's a neat story and I think someone more interested in sociology would love this.

This book is a part of the Audiosynced roundup of audio book reviews at Stacked and at Abby the Librarian. They alternate hosting the monthly post.

I bought this book from Audible.com.

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