Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin

2011. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 163 pages, plus extensive Notes, Bibliography, and Index

Genres: Informational narrative, history, photo journalism

Ages: Grades 5 and up, also engaging for young adult and adult readers

Summary

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, fire broke out in the Triangle Waist Company, a manufacturer of women’s clothing, housed within the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building. Workers on the eighth floor scrambled frantically for the elevator–and a few escaped before the elevator gears melted and becvame dysfunctional. Others went down the stairs–but those stairs were only 33 inches wide, forcing people to move slowly and in single file. Some workers on the tenth floor managed to escape, either by going to the roof or departing by the stairs. They were the lucky ones. Workers on the ninth floor were, for the most part, trapped. On that floor, filled with highly flammable fabrics and dust, fire literally exploded, flames shooting upward from the inferno one floor below. The door was locked–common practice in a time when employers wanted to discourage latecomers and union organizers. Trapped and doomed, many workers suffocated or burned to death. Others, to the horror of onlookers, leaped to the sidewalk below, choosing death on the concrete sidewalks over the alternative. Within minutes, 146 people, many young women, had died, making this the most lethal fire in New York’s history until September 11, 2001. Though fire fighters were summoned and arrived at the Asch Building with unprecedented haste, there was little they could do. Their hoses and ladders would not reach to a height of eight stories. They were left, in large part, to gather the dead, a number of whom were burned so badly they were all but unrecognizable. New York City, stunned, entered into a period of mourning and reflection–then anger–that would ultimately result in new laws and regulations governing on-the-job safety. Author Albert Marrin, with his exceptional sense of history and extraordinary research, not only tells the story of the fire itself, but provides a rich historical context to help readers understand how and why such an event could have occurred in the first place. The “perfect storm” for this fire began ironically enough, as he shows us, with the overwhelming “pull” of immigrants to a new land. It was further augmented by a growing demand for manufactured goods and expansion of sweatshops: small “factories” in which cheap human labor created product at minimal expense to employers. But this is not a tale told in generalities; there’s a human face on every page. As Marrin tells us in his engaging Prelude, “School textbooks usually focus on ‘famous’ names–kings, presidents, politicians, generals–as the shapers of history. Yet these are only part of the picture. The names of others, often equally important, seldom get the recognition they deserve” (p. 6). This remarkable book gives the “others” their voice.

In the Classroom

1. Sharing. Almost everyone who lives in the U.S. today either came here as an immigrant or has parents, grandparents, or great grandparents who did so. Talk about the different reasons that people migrate to the U.S. What do they hope for? What did immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century hope for?

2. Background. This book tells not only of one fire, but more expansively, of working conditions that were commonplace in the early 20th century, particularly in large U.S. cities like New York. Talk about some of the ways in which the working conditions of that time and place differed (sometimes drastically) from what we take for granted today. Consider, for example, such things as physical surroundings, hours of work expected by employers, wages, and safety.

3. Choosing a format. Flesh & Blood So Cheap, lavishly illustrated with black and white photos from the time period it depicts, is an easy two-hour read (or even less) for an adult reader.You may wish to preview the book and choose passages (or whole chapters) to share aloud. Some students may choose to read the book in its entirety, or you may wish to share the whole book aloud either with the class as a whole or with a smaller reading and discussion group. Be sure to use a document projector in order to better share photos, diagrams, and other visual features.

4. Things to notice. Like Marrin’s other books (notably Years of Dust), this one is the result of careful research and thoughtful presentation. Even a quick glance at the bibliography (pp. 164-167) reveals just how many sources the author investigated in order to bring this information together. In addition to the impressive research, here are some other things you and your students may notice–and wish to discuss:

  • Voice. Marrin is known for his ability to bring information to life through an engaging voice that reaches right out to us. Identify one or two passages in which the voice seems to work particularly well and talk about how this writer achieves a tone that seems right for a serious informational piece like this one. What are some good words to describe this voice?
  • Layout. No one would call this a picture book. Yet Marrin tells his story through a well-balanced mix of text and illustrations. Is this combination particularly effective with a subject of this nature? Would this book also make a good documentary film?
  • Quotations. Notice that each chapter opens with a quotation. And they come from highly diverse sources.  Is this an effective strategy for a writer? Why? Does the opening quotation tell a reader what to look or listen for in a chapter?
  • Blended stories. Marrin’s book could have been far shorter had he simply shared the facts about what happened the day of the Triangle Fire: how it started (based on what we know), how many people died, how New York dealt with the aftermath. Clearly, Marrin did not want to settle for that approach. Instead, he took time to think about the circumstances that led up to the Triangle Fire. What are some of those circumstances, and how did events converge to make a larger, richer story? Is it important for a writer to give us the big picture? For example, is it important for us as readers to know something of the immigrant experience in order to appreciate how this tragedy came about?
  • Columns of print. Notice that the book is printed in columns like a newspaper. Why do you suppose the author or design editor made this choice? Some people find narrow columns easier to read than print that spans a full page. Do you agree?
  • Readability. Readability is based on several factors, among them the nature of the content (Is it interesting or not), the difficulty of the vocabulary, and the complexity and length of sentences. Based on these factors–or any others you think of–rate the readability of Marrin’s book on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being high.
  • Title. Where does the title of the book come from? Does it capture the author’s main message well? (See page 49.)

5. Informational Writing. The book raises numerous topics that invite further research. Following are just a few ideas. Likely you and your students will think of others.

  • Ellis Island. For how long did immigrants to the U.S. have to pass through Ellis Island? What was that experience like for them? How did it differ from or compare to procedures that legal immigrants follow today? (See in particular Chapter I.)
  • Sweatshops. What exactly is a sweatshop–and where did this name come from? Do sweatshops still exist here in the U.S.? How do we know? Do they exist in other parts of the world–and if so, where? (See in particular Chapter VII.)
  • Working Conditions. How did working conditions in the early 20th century differ from typical working conditions in the U.S. today? What has changed, and what legislation helped to bring about these changes?
  • Ready-made clothing. What factors contributed to the demand for and availability of ready-made clothing? Is it conceivable that people might have gone on indefinitely making their own clothing by hand? (See in particular Chapter III, pp. 56 and following.)
  • Child labor. When, if ever, was it legal in this country to employ children? How old did they have to be to work? Is child labor still legal anywhere in the world?
  • Unions. What factors contributed to the formation of a garment union? What changes occurred as a result of pressure on employers by this union? How did employers respond at first to formation of such a union?
  • The fire. What specific conditions or circumstances contributed to the outbreak of the Triangle Fire? What, if anything, could have prevented this fire from ever happening? What is the likelihood that such a fire would occur in a U.S. factory today? (See in particular Chapter V.)
  • Fire fighting. Fire fighting has evolved markedly since the days of the Triangle Fire. In terms of protecting people and property, what things are possible now that were inconceivable in 1911? What factors have brought about these changes?

6. Persuasive Writing (Argument). Marrin’s book is nothing if not provocative. It is, after all, about life and death. Following are some issues on which your students can take a stand, using opinions, observations, and research to create a persuasive argument. Again, you (and they) will likely think of many additional topics.

  • Time heals all wounds. In Chapter V (pp. 123-124), author Albert Marrin takes issue with the old saying that “time heals all wounds.” Survivors of life threatening events may recover physically, he suggests, but not necessarily in other ways: “Certain wounds do not bleed, nor can they be bandaged or treated with medicine. For they are wounds to the spirit, invisible scars carried for the rest of the survivors’ lives” (p. 124). Do you agree or disagree? What factors help “wounds” to heal–or prevent them from healing?
  • Motivations. In this book, employers and business owners do not take action to improve conditions for their workers until serious pressures are brought to bear on them. Is their resistance to change understandable or immoral? Why do you think so?
  • The American dream. So many of the immigrants who perished in the Triangle Fire and others who worked in similar conditions had come to America in pursuit of a dream, a better life and more opportunities than they had known. Given how much they lost, were their dreams realized in any way?
  • “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .”  The words of Emma Lazarus, which appear on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, are equally etched in the conscience of many Americans even today. Does our current response to immigrants echo the philosophy of those words? How so? Or, if you think it doesn’t, why not? 
  • Today’s working conditions. Clearly, the working conditions that led up to the Triangle Fire were all but intolerable.  What about today, though? Are working conditions for typical Americans good? In what ways, if any, could they be improved?
  • Workers’ rights. In the early 20th century, workers had very few rights. That has changed now. But how do we achieve a balance between the employer’s or business owner’s rights and those of the workers he or she employs? What do employers or owners have a right to expect–and what do workers have a right to demand?
  • Child labor. Is child labor ever justified–or is it by nature immoral? Would it ever be all right to purchase products that you knew had been made by children–or made in sweat shops? Why or why not? 
  • “Many sources.” At the front of the book, Albert Marrin offers us a quotation from President Lyndon B. Johnson: “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources–because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples” (at the Statue of Liberty, October 3, 1965). Do you agree with Lyndon Johnson’s words? What did he mean? How do you feel about this quotation?
  •  Bread and Roses. Little Rose Schneiderman (pp. 130-133) argued that even the humblest female worker had a right to “bread and roses.”  What do you think she meant by that? Was she right? Why?
  • Women’s rights. After reading this book, do you think the lives of women in America are significantly better than they were 100 years ago? In what ways? Are any improvements still needed? Is there any way at all in which women are worse off than they were in the previous century?
  • The book itself. What are the primary strengths of Flesh & Blood So Cheap? Would you recommend this book to other readers? Why?
  • Cover photo. Have a close look at the cover photo. Why do you think the author chose it? What should we notice about this photo, and how do you think he wants us to feel when we look at it?
  • Have things improved? Based on your reading of this book, would you say that overall life in America has improved–or not? What specific circumstances support your point of view? Interview the oldest person you know and ask him or her this same question. Combine your perspectives in your response. 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Calpurnia Tate lives in a small Texas town in 1899. She longs for a career in science–but her parents would much prefer that she concentrate on her housekeeping skills. Jacqueline Kelly’s intriguing, sometimes comical, and provocative book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate pairs well with Albert Marrin’s Flesh & Blood So Cheap, giving us a rural, narrative perspective on how life was for women (particularly strong-willed young women) a century ago. Watch for a review of this Newberry Honor Book–together with suggestions for informational and persuasive writing based on the content. Thanks for visiting–please return and bring a friend! Our readership is growing!

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