Click here to read reviewer Elizabeth Schulenberg's take on Triangle.
Memory is a tricky thing, especially when applied to one of the most notable tragedies of the twentieth century: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed one-hundred-forty-six people, including Esther Gottesfeld’s fiancé and her beloved sister, Pauline. Esther is the only remaining survivor and, on her deathbed at one-hundred-and-six, still haunted by the images of that fateful day.
After the fire, Esther is left to raise her unborn child without the comfort of family, never marrying. Years later, when Esther’s son and his wife are killed in an automobile accident, it is she who raises Rebecca Gottesfeld, her darling granddaughter.
Katharine Weber weaves an esoteric musical theme through Esther’s story and the improbable romance of two unusual people, composer George Botkin and geneticist Rebecca. George’s music explores “all sorts of formations found in nature for their musical possibilities, especially genetic codes and cell structures.”
Through court documents and interviews, Esther relives her narrow escape from the fire, incessantly harassed by Ruth Zion, a woman’s rights advocate who is compiling what she believes is the definitive “herstory” of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the patriarchy that allowed it to happen. As the last living survivor, Esther is Ruth’s last hope for notoriety.
Ruth fails to penetrate Esther’s painful secrets, repeating the same questions over and over, the wily old woman sensing the ill-intentions of the researcher. Clearly a woman with an agenda of her own, Ruth hopes to mine more fertile ground through Rebecca Gottesfeld after Esther’s death.
That Esther dies a few days prior to 9/11 adds a subtle tension to Rebecca and Ruth’s unfolding drama, the images of bodies falling to their deaths now embedded in the national consciousness of a more recent horror. Grieving Esther and 9/11, George and Rebecca remain vigilant in spite of Ruth’s continued intrusions into their privacy.
That Esther escapes the fire at all is exceptional, her actions driven by instinct, the account of the fire harrowing: the helpless terror of women trapped in a burning building, blindly heaving themselves from the windows to avoid the flames, the cotton garments they have sewn fueling the pyre.
Skillfully weaving the historical perspective of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire with Rebecca and George’s unusual love story, the author joins the nature of loss with the past and the present. Esther’s survival is a testament to the extraordinary spirit of the immigrants who fled a hostile Europe for the opportunities of a new country, her granddaughter a reflection of the values they shared.