Picador, 2007 (2007)
Reviewed by Kerrily Sapet
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.
he story of Esther Gottesfeld begins with this poem by Robert Pinsky. When Gottesfeld dies at the age of 106, she takes with her the story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. She is the last survivor of the fire that took the lives of at least 146 people, all workers in a clothing factory in New York City. Esther's fiancÚ Sam and her sister Pauline perish in the fire, leaving young Esther, a recent emigrant to the United States, alone and pregnant.
atharine Weber's story of
begins with Esther living in a retirement home. She has told the story of the fire many times - relating the horrors of workers jumping to their deaths from the ninth floor, the chaos, and the appalling lack of safety standards. Through her eyes the reader is transported back into the world of female factory workers, primarily immigrants and young children, working in sweatshop conditions and at the mercy of unscrupulous male bosses. Esther's story is revealed piece by piece through the probing questions of a zealous feminist interviewer who discovers intriguing discrepancies in the tale. Throughout, there is the mystery of how Esther managed to escape the fire when the rest of the women on her floor perished. Esther's story of the past is woven neatly into the story of the present and her granddaughter Rebecca's life.
atharine Weber's tale is riveting. It is a story of tragedy and of life and of mystery. As the reader delves into the depths of Esther's past, more questions arise. One wonders whether the missing links in her testimony of the terrible fire are common mistakes of an elderly woman, or if they point to a secret she has concealed for years.
is a difficult book to put down. It is one that will captivate the reader from the first page of Esther's narrative to the last - in which the ending will make the reader want to start at the beginning again and read the book with a keener eye.
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