Katharine Weber

By – October 24, 2011

The Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry fire of 1911 forms the back­ground for this intrigu­ing nov­el of mem­o­ry, tragedy and hope. Author Kather­ine Weber has cre­at­ed the fic­tion­al char­ac­ter of Esther Gottes­feld, a sur­vivor of the Tri­an­gle fire, and through her recount­ing of the events, explores the deep­er mean­ing of what is mem­o­ry and its rela­tion­ship to truth.

At times, the nov­el reads like a mys­tery that Esther’s grand­daugh­ter Rebec­ca must solve and in so doing, under­stand the mean­ing of her grandmother’s life, and even­tu­al­ly her own. After Esther’s death, a fem­i­nist his­to­ri­an, Ruth Zion, con­tacts Rebec­ca to chal­lenge the sto­ry Esther has told and meets resis­tance from Rebec­ca, who wants to hold fast to the mem­o­ry of her grand­moth­er as she has always known her.

Rebec­ca, a geneti­cist, has devot­ed her life to study­ing the intri­cate bio­log­i­cal codes that form the com­plex human body. Her long­time part­ner, George, a musi­cian, trans­lates these bio­log­i­cal pat­terns into music. At times this sto­ry­line appears humor­ous and whim­si­cal, but embed­ded in the sto­ry and woven around the his­to­ry of Esther lies a truth of what it is that binds each of us to anoth­er. It is George who will begin to real­ize that Esther’s mem­o­ry is hid­ing a deep­er secret.

The nov­el, beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and con­struct­ed, is told in alter­nat­ing chap­ters of Esther’s descrip­tion of the Tri­an­gle fire, and George’s dia­logue on his music, with Rebec­ca as the link between the two sto­ries. Pat­terns and con­nec­tions, music and his­to­ry pro­vide the intri­cate and com­pelling plot line that cul­mi­nates with the events of 9/11 and the rebuild­ing of lives from the ash­es of tragedy.

Bar­bara Andrews holds a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has been an adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion instruc­tor, and works in the cor­po­rate world as a pro­fes­sion­al adult educator.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Macmillan

1. Reread the poem by Robert Pin­sky that opens the nov­el. What do you make of the way the poem blends past and present? In what way do var­i­ous forms — poet­ry, jour­nal­ism, schol­ar­ly books, musi­cal com­po­si­tions, fic­tion — com­ple­ment one anoth­er in doc­u­ment­ing his­to­ry? What echoes did you notice between Pinsky’s poem and the Tri­an­gle Ora­to­rio with which the nov­el con­cludes? What sim­i­lar rever­ber­a­tions occur through­out the novel?

2. What assump­tions did you make about Esther after read­ing the rec­ol­lec­tions that form the first chap­ter? How did your per­cep­tion of her shift through­out the novel?

3. In your mind, what do George’s com­po­si­tions sound like? What was the effect of read­ing about the med­ical aspects of his music? In what ways does this mesh with the lega­cy of loss in Rebecca’s ancestry?

4. What are the ben­e­fits and short­com­ings of Rebecca’s DNA research? How does it affect her rela­tion­ship with George?

5. What does George’s fail­ure to have a cell phone indi­cate about his char­ac­ter and sen­si­bil­i­ty? In what way does George’s music weave sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy into tra­di­tion­al and clas­si­cal forms?

6. In the inter­view tran­script fea­tured in chap­ter four, what new details emerged that you had not noticed before in Esther’s ini­tial retelling of the Tri­an­gle fire? What defines her immi­gra­tion story?

7. The pro­file of George, com­pris­ing chap­ter five, includes his own take on the cadences that inspire his music. What does this inter­view, along­side the one between Ruth and Esther, tell us about the var­i­ous ways we view our own lives? If a reporter were to inter­view you about a sig­nif­i­cant inci­dent in your life, what facts would have to be con­veyed in your own words? What expe­ri­ences would a reporter like­ly misinterpret?

8. What was it like to final­ly hear” Ruth’s voice in chap­ter eight? What con­clu­sions had you drawn about her before she was giv­en a voice in the nov­el? What is Ruth right about? What are her short­com­ings? Why are Esther and Rebec­ca so resis­tant to view­ing the fire through the lens of feminism?

9. Chap­ter eight opens with the inac­cu­rate news sto­ry that reports Esther’s death. What is the effect of her death date and its prox­im­i­ty to 9/11? What par­al­lels exist between the Tri­an­gle tragedy and 9/11?

10. In chap­ter nine, Rebec­ca tells her ther­a­pist about the few mem­o­ries she has of her father, real­iz­ing she believed that her father wouldn’t have died in the car acci­dent along with her moth­er, that they would both be alive today if it were not for the Tri­an­gle fire. But Esther her­self would have died years ago had she not been so busy sur­viv­ing the fire so effec­tive­ly.” What uni­ver­sal qual­i­ties exist in this line of think­ing? What is it like to be a sur­vivor? What pat­terns does the mind dis­cov­er in the ran­dom­ness of tragedy? Was the death of Rebecca’s par­ents ran­dom”? Or the death of Mor­ris Jacobs, in a fire no less?

11. How did you inter­pret Esther’s habit of wear­ing eye­glass­es that didn’t per­fect­ly cor­rect her vision? What did you make of her com­ment, para­phrased by Rebec­ca in chap­ter thir­teen, that it was so she could see the world a lit­tle blur­ry on purpose”?

12. Why didn’t Esther spend any of the mon­ey she received secret­ly after the fire? How would she have respond­ed to the Tri­an­gle Oratorio?

13. What caus­es the shift in Rebec­ca and George’s rela­tion­ship, lead­ing to mar­riage and a child?

14. How much knowl­edge of the Tri­an­gle Waist Com­pa­ny fire did you have before read­ing Tri­an­gle? What details about the fire sur­prised you? What is the effect of read­ing a book that blends his­tor­i­cal fact with fiction?

15. Had you pieced togeth­er the truth by the time you reached the novel’s clos­ing scenes, when the real­i­ties of Esther’s and Pauline’s expe­ri­ences at the fac­to­ry are revealed? What choic­es would you have made in Pauline’s situation?

16. What are the key events in your fam­i­ly his­to­ry? What dis­crep­an­cies exist in the var­i­ous accounts of it? To what do you attribute those dis­crep­an­cies? Are there arti­facts such as let­ters, legal doc­u­ments, or fam­i­ly pho­tos like the ones in the nov­el that could reveal fam­i­ly secrets or hid­den truths if exam­ined more closely?