A vivid, highly disturbing narrative with relevance to current discussions of economic inequality and workplace safety.

THE HAMLET FIRE

A TRAGIC STORY OF CHEAP FOOD, CHEAP GOVERNMENT, AND CHEAP LIVES

The disheartening but well-told account of a grisly 1991 factory fire that exemplifies the social costs of institutional racism and “cheap” capitalism.

Simon (History/Temple Univ.; Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, 2009, etc.) uses the forgotten flashpoint of the Imperial Food Products fire in Hamlet, North Carolina, in which 25 people died, to synthesize an unsettling argument about an insidious “social gospel of cheap” that has overtaken American life since the economic jolts of the 1970s. “This was a serious, and perhaps purposeful, side effect of the business-first policies that had flipped the New Deal and Fordism on their heads,” he writes. In Hamlet, a relentlessly pro-business attitude allowed the factory to maintain an unsafe, grueling workplace for people with few prospects; the fire victims included African-American single mothers and white working-class people whose own prospects had diminished with the disappearance of stable railroad and industrial jobs. Simon incorporates a broader regional history that reveals how such towns became dependent on the “brutally competitive business…of fast food products.” He illustrates this with a stomach-churning narrative of the historical transformation of chicken into a cheaply produced, unhealthy foodstuff, farmed out to individual contractors treated like sharecroppers and middlemen like Imperial with little oversight. These processes were accelerated by the revived Southern antipathy toward unions and long-running racial tensions; during the blaze, a black township’s fire department was kept on standby, confirming a sense of racial bitterness layered on top of class stratification. “Hamlet’s racial geography only added to the already festering distrust that, in turn, exacerbated PTSD symptoms,” writes Simon. Despite the temporal distance, Simon creates in-depth characterizations, ranging from Imperial’s owners, portrayed as callous out-of-towners who kept factory doors locked to reduce theft, to compromised local officials to desperate workers who barely survived. He conveys this sad tale via admirable research and a clear voice that only occasionally becomes didactic.

A vivid, highly disturbing narrative with relevance to current discussions of economic inequality and workplace safety.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-62097-238-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: The New Press

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS

Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative which retrieves her first sixteen years from "the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood."

Her story is told in scenes, ineluctably moving scenes, from the time when she and her brother were sent by her fancy living parents to Stamps, Arkansas, and a grandmother who had the local Store. Displaced they were and "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." But alternating with all the pain and terror (her rape at the age of eight when in St. Louis With her mother) and humiliation (a brief spell in the kitchen of a white woman who refused to remember her name) and fear (of a lynching—and the time they buried afflicted Uncle Willie under a blanket of vegetables) as well as all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, there are affirmative memories and moments: her charming brother Bailey; her own "unshakable God"; a revival meeting in a tent; her 8th grade graduation; and at the end, when she's sixteen, the birth of a baby. Times When as she says "It seemed that the peace of a day's ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect."

However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1969

ISBN: 0375507892

Page Count: 235

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1969

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