Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin
Random House, 2011 (Currently Available)
Face Value: THIS is how to do a nonfiction cover. On top of an eye-catching title, Flesh & Blood So Cheap boasts one of the best covers I’ve seen in awhile, the kind that makes you want to pick it up and look carefully. So nice to see an image that’s not a stock photo, but a carefully selected image of young women working in a factory. And the flames creeping up along the side give the exact right terrifying effect without being gruesome. This is a cover to turn outward on the shelves of your library, bookstore or personal collection, because it’s going to grab attention.
Does it Break the Slate? Yes, I think it really does. Historically speaking, we’re dealing with Slatebreaking subject matter, but beyond that I felt that Marrin did an excellent job here of framing this book to really focus on the women who worked, fought and died throughout the buildup to the fire, the tragedy and it’s aftermath. This is a story about women who died because women, immigrants and poor people weren’t treated as well as people of privilege. Albert Marrin acknowledges that fact, and contextualizes it into the present as well. This book is a great example of a “feminism as human rights” narrative, very worth reading.
Who would we give it to? That’s a little trickier. The subject matter and presentation are fascinating, but the book itself is pretty wordy. It offers great information for a kid who’s already interested in the content, but I wouldn’t offer this up without some previous interest in the topic.
Review: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is an incredibly compelling topic, and Marrin’s book shows a tremendous amount of careful research. One of the things I liked best about it was its overarching structure. Rather than simply a rehashing of the tragedy itself, in a lurid, tabloid style, with attention only to the most graphic of details, Flesh and Blood concerns itself with the events that led up to the fire, and what allowed it to happen the way it did. We learn about the day to day drudgery of working in a factory, we learn the cost of making each garment and the paltry take home pay, long hours and danger for each worker. We learn about the transformation in the garment industry after the Civil War, the reason there were so many Italian and Russian Jewish immigrants working in these factories and the slow build to strikes and political action for fair pay and treatment of workers This book gives the reader a comprehensive understanding of what happened, why it happened and how it changed the world.
Marrin does an excellent job of distilling how women were treated in factories and by employers during this time, and of presenting this treatment as a feminist issue. He effectively demonstrates how disenfranchised women were during this time, particularly poor, young immigrant women who were often supporting their families on their paltry incomes. It was profoundly easy for these “girls” (as working women of all ages were referred to) to be taken advantage of. Even once workers rights became a hot button issue, Marrin explains,
“the men who led the AFL [American Federation of Labor] did not regard women, the backbone of the garment industry, as equals. Female workers, they believed, were hardly worth organizing, because they lacked men’s ‘drive’ and ‘fighting spirit.’ Yet on the other hand they were ‘too emotional.’
Lacking the right to vote and consistently underestimated by their male counterparts, women in the labor movement had a harder battle and even more at stake. And yet, these women were profoundly essential to the change that happened, before and after the Triangle Fire.
Despite the fact that this is not a character driven book, there are more than a few real-life Slatebreakers who make an appearance within its pages, incuding Clara Lemlich, a 23 year old immigrant woman who lead the strikes on the garment industry, Frances Perkins whose witnessing of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire led her into a lifetime of activism for workers’ rights, Alva Belmont, a millionaire widow and ardent feminist who supported strikes “as a battle in the wider war for the vote” and many other individuals who were moved to take action on behalf of their community. These women are highlighted as instruments of change on behalf of other workers. I love the description of Clara Lemlich, who “at first glance…did not seem like a threat to anyone” but was a natural leader who helped found Local 25 and spoke loudly and eloquently on behalf of women in the workplace, even when it resulted in physical harm. This is not just a story about women who were victims. It’s a story about women who spoke up and took action on behalf of themselves and their gender, despite expectations to the contrary.
It’s challenging to depict a story that everyone knows has a gruesome ending without sensationalizing that event. Marrin does an excellent job in underscoring the horror of the fire without exploiting them. The tragedy of the story is not fetishized, but the details included are undeniably moving, both in the depictions of heroism and heartbreak. I didn’t know, for example, that the elevator operators made several trips back and forth from the eighth floor, despite the danger, “saving scores of workers before heat bent the elevators’ tracks and put them out of action.” The sense of panic is palpable in passages like this one, from the eighth floor:
“Those who could not board elevators rushed the stairway door. They caused a pileup, so that those in front could not open the door. Whenever someone tried to get it open, the crowd pinned her against it. ‘All the girls were falling on me and they squeezed me to the door,’ Ida Willensky recalled. ‘Three times I said to the girls, ‘Please girls, let me open the door. Please!’ But they would not listen to me.’ Finally, cutter Louis Brown barged through the crowd and forced the door open.”
Marrin’s descriptions of the chaos, panic and devastation of these moments is carefully described and resonant with direct quotes and personal accounts from survivors.
This book is not without it’s problems. It’s way too wordy, for one thing. Too much text on the page can be deadly for a kids nonfiction book, and (though the images that are included are powerful), we deal with a whole lot of text in working our way through this narrative. And Marrin has a tendency to rely on clichéd phrases in emotional moments. “Time heals all wounds, the saying goes” he intones at one moment. Another paragraph begins “New Yorkers say that March comes in like a lion…and leaves like a lamb.” Lines like this are jarring, and distracting from the actual story.
However, my overall impression of this book was a good one. Despite its imperfection, this is a powerful telling of a true story, told in a way that reflects the complexities of it’s subject. It’s alarmingly still relevant, both here in the US, where unions and workers’ rights are being constantly put up for political debate and throughout the world where, in far too many places, workers are being treated with the same disregard that the women in the Triangle Factory were. The last line of Flesh and Blood So Cheap puts these stories in startling perspective, calling readers to both be informed and take action:
“Short memories and greed are a deadly mixture. When things are going well, we are likely to forget the past. Short memories are dangerous, because they allow greed to take control. The result is disaster. Thus, eternal vigilance truly is the price of liberty and safety.
That is the lasting lesson of the Triangle Fire.”
And if this book can get young people to take an interest in workers rights in their own communities or abroad, well – that would be a pretty thrilling impact.
Reviewed from Brianna’s copy, purchased from Amazon.
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