The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award YA nominee: Albert Marrin, Flesh & Blood So Cheap

Thursday, November 03, 2011

2011 National Book Award YA nominee: Albert Marrin, Flesh & Blood So Cheap

Frances Perkins was shaken by what she saw that day.  It was a life-changing experience.  The sight of people jumping from windows affected her so deeply that she vowed such a horror could not, must not, be allowed to happen again.  She would devote the rest of her life to making her vow a reality.  Yet the Triangle Fire is more than a tragedy.  It is part of a larger story, one woven into the very fabric of American life.  Without understanding that larger story, we cannot fully understand the disaster and how it influences us today. (p. 3-4)

March 25, 2011 marked the centenary of the deadliest fire in New York City outside of the infamous 9/11 attacks.  One hundred and forty-six women, most of them newly-arrived immigrants from Italy and Russia, perished in a fire that started on the upper floors of the ten story Asch Building, where the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had its center of textile operations.  It is one of the most tragic workplace disasters in American history and it spawned a host of reforms regarding safety codes, factory regulations, and labor laws.  Yet a century later, what really has changed about the sweatshops that used to proliferate in New York City?

In his middle school-aimed history, Flesh & Blood So Cheap, Albert Marrin sets out to explain how these women who died in the fire came to work in a sweatshop such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and how similar economic conditions today have brought the sweatshop model back to the fore of mass manufacturing.  Marrin focuses on the personal stories of those women who immigrated to the United States from Italy and Russia in hopes of escaping either brutal rural poverty (the Italians) or cruel religious pogroms (the Yiddish-speaking Jews from Russia) and how their lives became intertwined with the exploitative textile manufacturing plants such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.  Marrin also mixes in the stories of reformers such as Frances Perkins (the future Secretary of Labor and the first female to hold a Cabinet position), Morris Rosenfeld, Mary Dreier, Al Smith (future governor of New York), among others.

Marrin's narrative is not linear, in part because he aims to show social and cultural connections between the immigrant cultures and today's outsourced sweatshops.  He mixes together not just the personal stories of the people mentioned above, but also those who actively resisted the nascent corporate capitalism that was beginning to dominate American business and politics.  At times, this may be a bit heady for his intended middle school audience, but Marrin does not sugarcoat the perceived inequalities of the sweatshop economic system and its tendency to reduce costs at the expense of safety and decent worker wages.  He frequently uses worker diaries and newspaper accounts of the time to underscore the misery that these textile workers and others in related fields experienced.  This creates an immediate, personal connection to the past that makes Flesh & Blood So Cheap a quick page-turning read.

Yet there are problems with such an approach.  In his creation of a personal narrative, Marrin at times becomes too polemical.  He presents the horrors of sweatshop capitalism without presenting much, if anything, in the way of explanation for how such a system proliferated so quickly in the major cities such as New York City.  Of course, the argument could be made that providing this look might weaken the effectiveness of the narrative he crafted out of the documents of the workers' lives and their deaths, but this near-total omission opens this otherwise well-written and presented non-fiction to the charge that it is sacrificing historical perspective for the sake of sensationalist presentation of a tragic event. 

Despite this, Marrin's book certainly succeeds in its goal of writing a gripping history of the time to which middle school-aged children could read, understand, and relate.  Marrin's connections of past and present present troubling questions for readers young and old alike to consider, especially in regard to the basic structure of our global economy.  Although Flesh & Blood So Cheap does not attempt to be a neutral, "unbiased" history (as if such things can ever exist), it certainly makes an important American historical event appear fresh and vibrant for readers who may not know much about the stimuli leading up to the Fire but who may be interested in reading a history presented as a series of linked personal narratives that could in turn reflect on their own families' lives and experiences.

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