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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Touched by Fire, written by Irene N. Watts. Tundra, 2013. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"We take a long time settling down after supper. The cabin is small, and it is hard for all of us to sort our belongings and get into our bunks. My arm throbs, and there is a red bump where the doctor injected the needle. The engines grind, and the noise is so close to my ear that, even on the top bunk, I feel as if I am resting right on top of the machinery."

In this compelling piece of historical fiction, we meet Miriam and her family. They have moved to New York City following intimidation and attack by the Cossacks in their Russian homeland. The first part of their journey leads them to East Berlin, but their future there seems destined to be more of the same treatment.  To them, America is the land of opportunity and their father works very hard to earn the money needed to emigrate. He goes on ahead of the rest of the family.

His letters home are full of encouragement. Two years later when the family prepares to set sail for America themselves, changes must be made. Miriam's baby sister is not well enough to travel, her younger brother will not leave his home or his grandparents, and her mother will not leave without them. Miriam must make the trip alone. Once she arrives, her search for work begins. Two wage earners will get the rest of the family to America more quickly.

Miriam works for the Shirtwaist Kings, finding new friends and purpose in her life. The company owners have little regard for their workers. The Triangle Shirt Waist Company nothing to offer protection; in fact, the conditions are appalling. The descriptions of the working atmosphere are both scary and intolerable. When a fire breaks out in the factory where she works,  Miriam is lucky to get out alive. Many do not.

Leaving Kiev to escape the cruelties of the pogroms in the early twentieth century often led immigrants to a different kind of despair. Irene Watts tells her well-researched story with vivid detail and heartfelt compassion for those who sought a better life in a new world. The March 25, 1911 factory fire changed life as they knew for so many families. 146 workers (almost all of them women) died that day.

Ms. Watts gives a clear accounting of the conditions that led to the tragedy; she manages, through her very strong characters and Miriam's first person narrative, to make us a part of the terror of the fire and its aftermath. She has also written a detailed and informative historical story concerning world communities and the highs and lows of immigrant life for many, always with Miriam at the forefront.

It is chilling to think that more than 100 years later a similar event led to the death of 1,127 (almost all of them women) in the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh. It is tragic that history keeps repeating itself, despite our ever growing awareness of such injustices.

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