One-Minute Book Reviews

February 24, 2012

Albert Marrin’s ‘Flesh and Blood So Cheap’ – A Children’s Book on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Its Aftermath

The true story of a blouse-factory disaster that killed 146 people, mostly young women

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. Knopf, 192 pp., $19.99. By Albert Marrin. Ages 10 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Four hundred thousand people lined the streets of New York on a rainy day in 1911 for the funeral procession of the victims the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Nearly all of the dead were young, female Italian or Russian immigrants. And nearly all are known today, if they are known at all, for how they died rather than how they lived.

This excellent book shows how the victims lived — in their home countries, on ships bound for America, and in New York tenements — and how they found a legacy in workplace reforms that eased the shocking conditions that led to their deaths. It focuses on the Italian Catholic and Russian Jewish garment workers at the Triangle blouse factory in Lower Manhattan.

But Albert Marrin makes clear that the 146 victims of the fire shared hardships with people from other countries — especially Greece, Hungary, Romania and Poland — who became the grandparents of baby boomers. And if children see this book as the fascinating story of a tragedy that better safety rules could have prevented, their elders may find in it a part of their family history. Many adults have heard that their grandparents came to America “in steerage,” the lowest deck that held the steering cables for ships, but know little about what that means. They might gain a new respect for their elders’ fortitude if they knew that throughout the transatlantic crossing, two- to four-hundred steerage passengers shared two toilets.

Best line: Many. An example that deals with the garment industry at the time of the Triangle fire: “Textile workers, often 9- and 10-year-olds, tended the looms that wove the thread into cloth. Textile machines lacked safety devices like guardrails and automatic shutoff switches. A machine might pull in a child, grown drowsy and careless with overwork, crushing limbs or worse.” Flesh and Blood So Cheap also has a fascinating discussion of the similar conditions that exist today in other countries. The book quotes economist Jeffrey D. Sachs of Harvard, who argues that banning child labor and closing sweatshops throws poor people out of work, which can hurt them. Marrin writes that children “had no place to go” after garment-factory owners in Bangladesh fired them: “To survive, many lived on the streets as beggars. Many others became prostitutes or starved.”

Worst line: “Eventually, the partners [of the Triangle Waist Company] paid the victims’ families $75 for each life lost” in the fire. Actually, that’s a good line  — and money couldn’t compensate for these deaths — but you wonder what $75 would be in today’s dollars.

Published: February 2011

Furthermore: Flesh and Blood So Cheap was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Albert Marrin’s website describes his other works of juvenile nonfiction.

Read an excerpt from Flesh and Blood So Cheap.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 14, 2009

When Livia Soprano Met Mary Tyler Moore – Maria Laurino Grapples With Being an Italian-American in ‘Old World Daughter, New World Mother’

A former speechwriter calls for a revolution that, in some ways, has already arrived

Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.
By Maria Laurino. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maria Laurino entered Georgetown University in the late 1970s, “a member of that privileged generation that reaped the benefits, without doing any of the grassroots work,” of the women’s movement that flowered decade earlier. She tries to repay the debt in a book that begins as a memoir of growing up Italian-American in Short Hills, New Jersey, and devolves into a brief for an updated feminist ethic that combines an Old World respect for families with a New World admiration for individualism.

Old World Daughter, New World Mother resembles a dish of parmesan-cheese ice cream, that acquired taste found in some Italian restaurants. Laurino writes memorably about having a disabled brother and developing severe preeclampsia after becoming pregnant at the age of 37. But she links such experiences, not always plausibly, to a call for a “social revolution” that would require unprecedented female harmony and seemingly little work by men: “Once women agree on a vision for a national feminist movement that makes care its core principle, more creative solutions to help working parents will abound.” Given that both sexes — and their children — would benefit from those solutions, why should women alone have to agree on a vision for them? Shouldn’t men bear some of the responsibility for it?

In making her case for revolution, Laurino draws on the views and jargon of literary and gender theorists and scholars such as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton. Yet a curiously old-fashioned idea appears to underlie her book: that bringing about the revolution is, in effect, “women’s work.” The reality is often quite different. The reason many corporations now offer flexible schedules and refer to “maternity leave” as “parental leave” is in part that men are increasingly are seeking to spend more time with newborns and older children.

Laurino admits that’s she nostalgic for the excitement of 60s feminists for new ideas – at times she sounds weirdly like the men who, before the war in Iraq, lamented that they were born too late for Vietnam – and her sentimentality may help to explain why this book has the air of a throwback. Her Were You Always an Italian? showed that she has a lively perspective on her ancestry. Old World Daughter, New World Mother yokes her background so aggressively to other topics that it leaves the impression that, wittingly or not, she is in danger of becoming a professional Italian-American.

Best line: No. 1: “In her book The Equality Trap, Mary Ann Mason, now dean of the graduate school at Berkeley, told of how the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the early eighties  in favor of the California Federal Savings and Loan after the bank fired a receptionist for taking a four-month unpaid maternity leave.” If true, this startling tone-deafness to working women’s needs would help to explain why feminist groups have had trouble finding support from a new generation. No. 2: “When Mary Met Livia,” the title for a chapter about the collision between images of the liberated Mary Tyler Moore and the tradition-bound Livia Soprano in Laurino’s life.

Worst line: No. 1: “Our income shrunk significantly …” No. 2: “ Will men ever break loose ‘from the empire of phallocratism’?” No. 3: “Or, put another way, maybe I needed to get off my asana and smell the coffee.”

Published: April 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Laurino lives in New York City. She has worked for the Village Voice and as a speechwriter for former mayor David Dinkins.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like books but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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