At the end of each year, I share a list of books I’ve enjoyed that year. (The ones I wouldn’t recommend don’t make it to the list). So here’s my year in books. I hope you will find some good reads here – and that you’ll share your recommendations with me.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place 104 years ago this week. It inspired grief, outrage, the birth of a union, a host of labor laws and many books, including a brilliant novel called Triangle, by Katharine Weber.
I wrote about the novel a year ago, and thought I’d share the blog post with you again during this anniversary week.
From the archives
Triangle weaves together the stories of Esther Gottesfeld, the last living survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911; her scientist granddaughter; and a feminist researcher who asks Esther to share her memories and then listens a bit too carefully. The novel is riveting and challenging, with complex characters.
Who owns history?
Weber deftly builds both the mystery at the heart of the novel and the tense drama of the Triangle inferno. Small details that at first seem to provide only texture to the story later loom with horrifying impact.
The ending of the novel sent me racing back to the beginning with a new understanding – or at least new questions – about the plot. Triangle does not yield its insights easily, which makes it the best kind of book group selection, ripe for animated discussion.
Who owns history? The person whose story you believe.
A tragedy and a legacy
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a predictable and preventable tragedy that killed 146 workers – mostly young immigrant women – at a clothing factory in New York.
Dozens of the workers leaped to their deaths from the top floors of the blazing building, an image that anyone who lived through 9/11 can conjure all too easily. Even more people burned to death, many of them trapped behind locked doors in flaming workrooms. Others crawled onto rickety fire escapes that collapsed and sent them plunging to the sidewalk.
More than 350,000 people marched in the streets of New York to mourn the garment workers. Outraged by their needless and excruciating deaths, factory workers organized and won many of the workplace safety laws we take for granted today.
A story less known
A year before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, some 20,000 women who worked in garment factories had gone on strike to demand better wages, a shorter workweek (52 hours), and specific safety measures. These working class women, many of them Yiddish-speaking immigrants, drew the support of New York’s suffragists, some of whom were women from the city’s wealthiest families.
The suffragists raised funds for the workers, bailed them out of jail, and organized mass rallies to generate public solidarity. Across the city, factories conceded to the workers’ demands, acknowledged the unions, and improved workplace safety.
But not the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. The two owners – Max Blanck and Isaac Harris – refused to unionize and refused to address safety concerns, including workers’ calls to leave factory doors unlocked and provide functional fire escapes.
A year later, these safety issues cost 146 people their lives. Yet they cost the factory owners nothing – in fact, the two men profited from the tragedy. While they settled lawsuits by paying family members $75 for each lost life, the owners received insurance settlements of $400 for each worker killed. The two men went on to run other factories, accumulating and ignoring citations for the very safety violations that had led to the carnage at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.
The lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – both learned and unlearned – continue to haunt us today. A powerful novel like Triangle takes you into that world, and part of you is likely to remain there for a long, long time.
When you open a novel by Mary Doria Russell, there’s no way to prepare yourself. Her books are so vibrant, so varied, you can never know what to expect. All you can rely on is that each book will be compelling, animated by ideas and gripping plots as well as by the human hunger for connection.
Creatures of God
The Sparrow, Russell’s first novel (and my favorite), was published in 1998 and takes place in the near future. The Jesuits send into space a mission team composed of a handful of priests, a scientist, a Jewish intellectual who has just escaped a lifetime of indentured servitude, and a doctor and engineer who are married to one another. Scientists have heard music being broadcast from a distant planet, and somehow the Jesuits get the jump on international governments and send their team of linguists, artists and clerics to meet the other creatures of God. Decades later, the lone survivor of the journey, a Puerto Rican priest who speaks a dozen languages, finally tells the Church hierarchy what happened on the planet, when humans first encountered extraterrestrial beings and God broke all their hearts.
Resonance for our own time
In 2008, Russell published Dreamers of the Day, a beautifully written historical novel with deep resonance for our own time. The book is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a Cleveland woman who has spent her life serving and obeying others. When she loses her entire family in the influenza epidemic of 1919, she decides to take a long trip to Egypt. There she falls in with such historical figure as Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill. Agnes – who informs readers that she is telling us this story from beyond the grave – is a minor observer of the Cairo Peace Conference in 1919, in which the colonial powers, notably Britain, carved up the Middle East and created a new state called Iraq. Agnes is a memorable personality, and the Middle East history is fascinating and tragic because we know how it all turns out – and we learn from this novel that it didn’t need to be that way.
If I didn’t already trust Mary Doria Russell as a writer, I would never have picked up her 2011 novel Doc – and that would have been too bad. I have no interest in Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, or the milieu of the American West they personify. But this book was completely engrossing, thanks to the skill and warmth of the author and her narrative voice. The real-life characters Russell presents in this deeply researched novel are nothing like the mythic characters we’ve seen in a hundred movies, and the book is all the more fascinating for that. Her latest novel, Epitaph, builds on Doc and is already collecting strong reviews although it won’t be published until March 2015.
Who is she?
So who is this protean writer? She’s a Ph.D. with degrees in cultural, social and biological anthropology. She’s written six novels, won armloads of literary awards, been nominated for a Pulitzer prize – and had an asteroid named in tribute to one of her novels, an honor few authors can claim. Right now Mary Doria Russell is working on a book about the early days of the American labor movement. I can’t wait to read it.
As the holiday season approaches, I join all novelists in secretly wishing people across the land would awaken to find shiny copies of my book under their tree or menorah or waiting for them on the kitchen table. Hope you’ll find some inspiration for literary gifts in these posts about women novelists you should know.
“You’ve got to read this book.”
I learned about Laura McBride in the best way. A friend I trust said, “You’ve got to read this book.” The book was We Are Called to Rise, and the title alone (from an Emily Dickinson poem) would have drawn me. But I might not have stumbled across the title without my friend’s recommendation.
In We Are Called to Rise, four tragic story lines are narrated by four diverse characters: a woman whose marriage is collapsing and whose son has returned damaged from his third deployment in a war zone, a 22-year-old soldier recovering from a mysterious war wound, a middle-aged woman who advocates for children involved in court cases, and an 8-year old Albanian boy who is adapting far more swiftly than his parents to the strange world of America. All of these stories converge into one moment of hope in a gritty, sun-blasted Las Vegas no tourist will ever see.
I particularly appreciated the sections written in the point of view of Bashkim, the young boy. I often find child narrators annoying – either too cutesy or preternaturally wise. Bashkim is unusually mature and responsible, but in the way that is typical of the children of immigrants, who must serve as their parents’ translators and protectors in their new world.
The book brings the four main characters to life, with all their shortcomings and desperation, and the deep daily heroism of trying to do their best in a world where events sometimes seem to lack all meaning. Las Vegas, perhaps our country’s strangest city, also takes a star turn in this novel that is all about what is not visible on the surface.
A mature sensibility
This is Laura McBride’s first novel. She was 53 years old when it was published, and you can sense the mature mind and heart behind the text. For example, in this passage McBride takes us inside the thoughts of Avis, the woman whose son has returned from war as a frightening stranger. She grew up in poverty and chaos, and has managed to eke out a happy, stable life for herself. Now in middle age, she sees it beginning to disintegrate:
It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.
We Are Called to Rise has gotten wonderful reviews, and appeared on the published “must read” lists of such literary luminaries as Isabel Allende. But for me the most powerful inducement was my friend, telling me this was a book I could not miss.
Now that my novel Her Own Vietnam is out in the world, I’m going back to writing about 30 Women Novelists You Should Know. We’ve reached the halfway mark with Britain’s Andrea Levy.
How many ways can you say “wow!”?
Andrea Levy has won so many literary prizes in England, it’s as if they ran out of superlatives to use when describing her work. Her 2004 book Small Island won not only the Whitbread Novel award, but the Whitbread Book of the Year award. Not only did it receive the Orange Prize for Fiction, it also won the Orange Prize ‘Best of the Best’ award.
Four voices, four futures
As far as I’m concerned, the novel deserves all of these accolades and more. It’s a beautiful and powerful story of two couples in England in the years after World War II.
Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican immigrants who had been taught to consider England their mother country, and are shocked by the hostile welcome they receive. Queenie is a white working class woman who married Bernard to escape her destiny working on the family pig farm, and then found London and her husband to be not at all what she expected. The novel is told from the point of view of all four characters, as the major issues of their (and our) time – war, immigration, race, the personal courage to do the right thing – shape their lives and their world in unimaginable ways.
A faithful TV adaptation
The BBC adapted Small Island into a two-part television miniseries. It was one of the most faithful novel-to-TV adaptations I’ve seen. Watching it felt like revisiting the book. I think the care the producers took in adapting the book is reflected in the similarity between the original cover for the novel (L) and the cover image for the video (R).
More books to come
Andrea Levy started to write when she was in her thirties. Today, in her fifties, she has written four other novels in addition to Small Island, as well as two collections of short stories, many of which also won important literary prizes. I’m excited to think about all the Andrea Levy books still to be read.