Sunday, July 14, 2013

Touched By Fire by Irene N. Watts

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: July 13, 2013

Touched by Fire, Irene N. Watt's exquisite new novel, explores one family's journey as they flee from the pogroms of Russia in 1905, where the Cossacks burn villages to the ground, to Berlin, Germany, where Jews have a hard time living and working in peace, to the streets of the Lower East Side in New York. Teenage Miriam gives a first-hand account of the excitement everyone feels about going to America, the "Golden Land," the journey in steerage, the arrival at Ellis Island, and the discrimination the immigrants feel while seeking employment. When Miriam finally lands a job at the Triangle Shirt Waist Company as a cuff setter, she believes her future in the New World is finally secure. But on March 25, 1911, the fire that starts from overflowing bins of material scraps rages into what becomes known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and Miriam's life is forever changed.

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Be aware that my three star rating of Irene N. Watt's Touched By Fire is more about me than anything else. The book is children's fiction and though I certainly appreciate it for what it is, at the end of the day I am in my late twenties and my tastes are somewhat more refined than the average twelve to eighteen year old. In recognition of this fact I ask you to please take my rating with a grain or two of salt. 

Touched By Fire is the kind of book I'd encourage my children to read; Miriam's experiences make for a good story, but I'd encourage them to look beneath the story to the history Watt worked into the book - the growing turmoil in Russia, the rising tensions in Germany, the plight of the immigrant 'yearning to breathe free' and of course the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I have a great deal of respect for authors like Watt, writers who use their medium to teach and well as entertain.

Another thing I liked about this piece was the portrait Watt painted of the immigrant family. Miriam's father arrives in America two years before Miriam who travels alone while her mother remains in Germany until another child, Miriam's infant sister, is able to travel. This forced separation really exhibited the enormity of what it meant to uproot one's family and move halfway around the world in the early 1900s. Watt didn't have to depict the Markovs and their circumstances so realistically, but here again I found myself in admiration of her skill; her ability to recreate not just the events, but the emotional challenges that faced by so many at the turn of the last century.

All in all an enjoyable piece though I think the cover artist and publisher put too much a focus on the factory fire. The Triangle tragedy is only a part of this story and I think it is something of a disservice to both Watt and her readers to neglect the value in the rest of the book's content. 

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"A rush of heat and flame comes roaring in. Windows explode. A fiery wave of heat spares no one. More girls crowd at the Greene Street partition. How are we all to get through that narrow door before the fire engulfs us all?"
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