The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire anchors a generations-long family tragedy in this brooding historical melodrama.
Fleeing his violent, corrupt father—the first of the novel’s string of brutal patriarchs—16-year-old Junior Millwood travels in steerage from Ireland to the teeming New York City of 1906, a journey that begins a lively immigrant bildungsroman. Right off the boat he’s beaten and robbed, has his meager earnings skimmed by a sly foreman and gets entangled with tenement sirens. Fortunately, his love for Moira, the winsome lass he left behind, endures; soon he brings her over, marries her and secures her a job at his garment factory. Alas, the factory is the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company, where a 1911 fire killed 146 workers. The disaster, grippingly depicted here, was worsened by blocked exits, faulty fire escapes and other code violations, and became a rallying cry for the labor movement. It also leaves Junior bereft and burdened with a shameful secret. This first act of his saga is a vivid, well-researched recreation of working-class life in the early 20th century, supplemented with 14 pages of documentary endnotes. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel loses focus and coherence. Junior becomes a crusading but oddly two-faced city inspector who relentlessly enforces regulatory codes and cracks down on corruption while pocketing millions in graft. His guilt mounts as loved ones suffer untimely death and madness, which he interprets as God’s punishment for his sins. Meanwhile, the narrative maintains a veneer of historicity through perfunctory cameos of real-life figures including Jack Kennedy, Barack Obama and Ban Ki-Moon. Cook’s characters are well-intentioned but flawed people given to ethical compromises that seem forgivable until they begin to flounder in moral rot.
A hit-and-miss tale of souring American dreams, this subtle, affecting take on the travails of immigrant strivers turns cartoonish and contrived when those strivers bootstrap into wealth and power.