Saturday, December 20, 2008

Double Whammy Review: Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix & Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch

These reviews are going up together because they both deal with the same subject: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25th, 1911. When I saw that Margaret Peterson Haddix had a new book out about the fire (and the strike that preceded it), I knew I had to read it, and remembering how much I liked Ashes of Roses when it first came out, I picked that up as well so I could read them together. I blame the former wanna-be English teacher in me.

Uprising focuses on the lives of three young women in New York City, two young immigrant women who work at the Triangle Factory (Yetta, a Jewish immigrant from Russia and Bella, an Italian immigrant fresh off the boat), and a third woman, Jane the disillusioned daughter of a millionaire, who vows to help the Triangle Factory workers in any way possible when they organize a strike against the unfair - and dangerous - labor practices at the factory.

The story is introduced to us by a Mrs. Livingston, who is telling the story to the now-grown daughter of one of the factory's owners and who can somehow reveal the inner lives and knowledge of three different women (while the book is narrated in the third person, the chapters alternate between focusing on Yetta, Bella and Jane). The story starts as Bella arrives in America to begin her new life, working in the Triangle factory so she can send money back to her starving mother and siblings in Italy. Bella doesn't know a word of English, so when a crowd of workers spontaneously get up and leave in the middle of the day, Bella goes out with them, not knowing she is participating in the beginning of The Uprising of 20,000. Yetta, another of our protagonists, is one of the leaders of the strike - she and her sister Rahel are active in the burgeoning union and Yetta is one of the union's most fervent devotees.

As the strike continues, Bella, desperate for money and not understanding the meaning of strikes or unions, continues to work as a scab, while Yetta walks the picket lines daily for months. Jane, who feels useless and adrift in a society that only values her for what assets she could bring her father by marrying a wealthy man, becomes one of many wealthy women who support the poor strikers in any way they can, from standing between the strikers and police (the police won't hesitate to beat poor immigrant women to a pulp, but avoid the society ladies as much as possible) to bringing food to the strikers and posting money to bail them out of prison.

The three women's friendship is cemented when Bella receives a letter from home, which she can't read. Jane, who knows some Italian, reads the letter to Bella and translates it for Yetta, who speaks Yiddish and English. Jane's family recoils at the thought of the well-bred young woman fraternizing with such lowly women, but Jane is determined to stick with the working girls, even after the strike is over and work continues as usual at the Triangle Factory - until the day of the deadly fire.

Ashes of Roses has a much narrower focus. While Uprising follows three women and covers events around the factory from the beginning of the strike in 1909 through the fire in 1911, Ashes of Roses focuses on one Irish immigrant, Rose, and the whole book covers only about a month and a half - Rose's first terrible week or so in America with her mother and sisters, and then another few weeks with just one sister as they live in a room rented to them by a Triangle factory worker and union organizer, Gussie, and her father. After a week of learning how to use a sewing machine under Gussie's tutelage, Gussie brings Rose with her to the factory to begin work. Two weeks later, on pay day, the infamous fire breaks out.

I remember when I first read Ashes of Roses, I found the scene of the fire gripping. This time around, not so much. It's still a compelling account of the tragedy, but for me it no longer seemed quite so action-packed.

Not that Uprising had a fire scene that was any better. Overall I think that Ashes of Roses is the stronger of the two books, especially for older readers, because Uprising had way too many illogical moments for me to palate. The women that have absolutely no language in common seem to have an awfully good idea of what the other is saying (only occasionally does the caveat "She must have been saying something like..." appear), and Mrs. Livingston seems to have a psychic link to the women who died in the fire in order to be able to convey their last moments so vividly. Both books also have some clunky foreshadowing - lots of conversations and observations about fire escapes on buildings and how the newly immigrated women are awestruck by them.

Uprising is more concerned with painting a larger historical picture as Haddix's fictional characters often see real historical figures of the early labor movement. Haddix also includes a very substantial author's note at the end, giving further background into the story and her research process (ironically, she begins her author's note by saying she hates notes in other books that say 'this was real, but this wasn't' as she prefers to do the research herself...but then her note goes on to explain every historical person and event that appears in her book!). Auch's author's note is shorter, but then her book also doesn't cover as wide of a time as Uprising. Both books do cover some of the same experiences however, including both Bella and Rose working in flower-making sweatshops and, of course, the Russian Jewish union leaders that feature prominently in both books.

Sometime soon, when I'm not buried under wedding planning materials, I'm heading down to the building that once housed the factory - as Yetta points out in Uprising, the building was designed to be fireproof and it was. It still stands today and is a National Historic Landmark.
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