A novel twist on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

On March 25, 1911, a notorious fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Square in New York claimed the lives of 146 people, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrants. Many victims were killed when they jumped from the ninth floor to escape the flames. The owners of the factory were tried but not convicted.

The story of this tragedy has been told many times. For example, Leo Stern wrote “The Triangle Fire” and David von Drehle wrote “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” both factual accounts of what happened.

Katharine Weber, author of three previous novels, retells the saga in “Triangle,” mixing fiction and fact. Her attraction to the material is based in part on the fact that her paternal grandmother worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory as a buttonhole finisher in 1909.

One of Weber’s chief characters is Rebecca, whose grandmother is Esther Gottesfeld, a survivor of the Triangle fire. For many years, she has been living in the West Village Jewish Home. During the course of the novel, Esther dies at the age of 106.

Rebecca has had a romantic entanglement for 20 years with George Botkin, a successful composer. He lives in Greenwich Village, a few blocks from the Jewish Home. Rebecca’s home is in New Haven where she is a counselor in the clinical genetics department at the Yale University School of Medicine. They meet when George is visiting his aunt and Rebecca is visiting her grandmother. Although they are not married until the end of the story, their unconventional arrangement means that they are living together — apart. Rebecca comes to New York often to see her grandmother and George frequently spends time in New Haven.

The relationship between Rebecca and George may be seen as one of Weber’s sub-plots; it is tied inextricably to the main storym which is Esther’s experience in the fire and thereafter. She tells what happened several times to various people on different occasions.

The book opens with her transcribed recollections in a commemorative booklet published 50 years after the fire by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Subsequently, it includes her testimony in the trial of the factory’s owners when she repeats the story of what happened at least three times.

Most important are the accounts she gives to Ruth Zion, a determined researcher whose personality and activities are deliciously skewered by the author. Weber clearly takes great delight in lampooning this “post-feminist,” pretentious academician who specializes in the Triangle fire and whose investigation comes perilously close to revealing secrets that are best left buried.

Rebecca finds clues in her grandmother’s safe deposit box to what has become a tangled mystery. She and George team up to preserve the story that her grandmother has persistently told for many years and even readers of the book wind up with many unanswered questions.

Weber’s fascinating, fictional account of the Triangle fire is an intriguing approach to the story of a tragic event. It ingeniously supplements the many true reports and that enriches our understanding of what happened on that fateful day in 1911.

“Triangle” by Katharine Weber (242 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $23).