Margaret Peterson Haddix

Haddix seems to be on a prolific kick these days–she’s got the Missing series out and she’s working overtime on other novels. This one gives a glimpse into the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.

The story actually begins well before the fire, with the arrival of a poor immigrant from Italy to New York. When her fellow travelers are rejected for disease on Ellis Island, a distant cousin brings her to his lodges and gets her a job at the shirtwaist factory. There she listens to and learns the “English” of the Russian Jewish immigrants who work alongside her (actually Yiddish) and works hard to make money to send home. One of those immigrants is Yetta, who along with her sister Rahel, wonders about the possibility of better conditions and being revolutionary. Thirdly and separately we meet Jane, a coddled pampered upper class daughter of one of the rich men of New York.

Brought together by the strike at the factory, their worlds collide and start on a new tangent. Bella finds out her family has passed away, Yetta loses her sister, and Jane runs away from her father. It is with each other that they find family and some happiness. Jane takes a job as a governess while the other two continue at the factory. And then one day Jane brings her charges to the factory–which their father co-owns. And a fire starts….

It’s an engaging story, honest about the living and working situations of young women in NY at the turn of the century. One has a strong sense of what might have motivated these young workers with no family, no stable home, and a huge loss in their feeling of community and where they belong. It’s easy to be shocked at the working conditions and yet jubilant at the independence these young women show. Haddix does an excellent job of giving faces to this tragedy.

The only thing I found a little strange was Jane’s ready acceptance of her change in station. She went from being a pampered pet to working full time. Not that it isn’t admirable, but she seems too focused and cheerful and pleased with her change in station. It rings a little bit overdone.

Overall I would recommend this book for your late elementary to mid-school girls. Especially if there’s a history project day that they might need to do some research on–this gives them an interesting jump off point.