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Book Review 

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & Triangle by Katharine Weber & r & "This is what happened." So begins Katharine Weber's novel of the fictitious last living survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, an all-too-real tragedy that killed 146 people -- mostly young women, mostly recent immigrants. What follows is a recollection of the fire from survivor Esther Auerbach Gottesfeld, a Jewish immigrant who was 16 on the day she escaped the flames that claimed the lives of her sister Pauline and her fianc & eacute; Sam.

But is Esther's story a full and factual report of what really happened? That's the question probed by Esther's granddaughter Rebecca and her partner George -- a musical genius who creates compositions based on DNA sequences -- along with the intensely focused historian Ruth Zion, who is convinced that Esther's story has never been complete or entirely accurate. The events unfold in the days just before and after another New York tragedy -- the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The 1911 Triangle fire captured the American imagination. Panicked workers jammed the few exits and crushed against doors that opened inward -- or were locked. To escape the inferno, many women leapt to their deaths from the windows. That vision of people leaping from the high windows of a burning building, choosing between the unbearable flames and the certainty of gravity -- that's what was so horrifying about the Triangle fire, according to eyewitnesses.

Weber intersperses fictional interview transcripts, newspaper reports and court testimony with the unfolding narrative of Rebecca and George, so the facts of Esther's story emerge in pieces, as they do in real life: a little bit here in her own voice; a little bit there, as Rebecca uncovers old family photos and documents. Each retelling sheds a little more light on the novel's central secret.

Triangle is about how we tell others who we are -- through the stories we repeat to shape the chaos of life into a coherent narrative. But it's also about how we receive other people's stories: through the stories they tell us, the stories from friends and relatives, and third-party sources like magazines, newspapers, photographs and even court documents. The process of recording and interpreting history is brought into question here -- the story of history that gets documented for the ages depends on who's asking the questions and how the answers are recorded. The obnoxious and awkward Ruth gets uncomfortably close to the truth -- most readers will figure it out, but Weber has us rooting against the neurotic academic all the way.

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