363V: Historic Fiction Starts with Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Here’s the thing: this novel is not listed on ANY LIST of books about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

The book would have been published in the seventies or eighties. I read it in the nineties, and it was old then. The paperback cover was one of those 70s/80s style hand-drawn character montage covers with the main character in the middle. It was my mother’s book. She bought lots of family sagas and Doubleday Book of the Month selections.

The main character’s name was either Jake or Jacob. He’s a poor immigrant. I’m 99% certain he’s Jewish. His wife works at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and is killed when the fire breaks out. They have a young son. After her death, he gets involved in the burgeoning labor movement. I remember clearly this book is when I learned about strike busting, and what can happen to scabs.

There’s also a young, wealthy woman whose family (either her father or husband, I can’t remember) owns one of the factories where strikes are occurring. She starts sneaking food to the strikers because she learns the conditions they work and live in are atrocious (I forget how). She ends up involved with Jake.

I seem to remember we even see the next generation grow up, and Jake gets involved with the Jewish mob. These things I’m less clear about, though. Everything I listed above I’m really, really certain about.

The author was similar to Howard Fast. It’s not The Immigrants, which I ALSO stole from my mother’s shelf and read. That book is set in California.

It’s also not East River.

I’ve searched and searched for this book forever. Because of this novel, I became deeply interested in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, labor issues, and early 20th-century history. Most of my reading life has been so strongly influenced by it, and I can’t believe I can neither remember the name nor find it via google or booklists about the fire, labor movements, or the Jewish Mafia.

2 thoughts on “363V: Historic Fiction Starts with Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

  1. ANN

    Just a suggestion, though this title is EXTREMELY obscure: JAKE HOME, by Ruth McKenney. It’s a Very Serious Book by an author otherwise known for her humor style; she also wrote MY SISTER EILEEN. Ruth McKenney was very interested in labor issues, which is why I thought of it.

  2. Brigit

    This sounds very familiar to me. As a bookworm kid in the 70s I didn’t know a lot of adults who read much, and those who did usually favored bestsellers, so I read a LOT of those paperback family sagas with the hand-drawn faces on the covers! I wonder if this could be by one of the Jewish women writers who specialized in these novels. Belva Plain and Cynthia Freeman are two I remember. There was also a writer called Fred Mustard Stewart who did similar sagas, but racier. In googling I see that his book Ellis Island has a main character who’s a Jewish immigrant named Jacob/Jake. Good luck!


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