Written by Jacqueline Davies (Marshall Cavendish, 2009)
I am a big fan of immigrant novels. My critical thesis in the Vermont MFA Program focused on the immigrant experience in children’s literature. For that work, I compiled a list of some 70 picture books and novels and as I read my way down the list I was, for the most part, disappointed.
Truth be told, I never made it past the first page of Mary Jane Auch’s Ashes of Roses (Random House, 2004), which also focuses on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, because the author’s treatment of historical context just on that one page destroyed my trust.
Jacqueline Davies’ Lost has restored my faith. Even though the main character Essie didn’t have the typical endowed object or an adult mentor, the book succeeds.
The good things
I found this historical novel a most compelling read with the following particularly strong points:
- Depth—the novel concentrates on relationships and not on the fire itself, but rather uses the fire as a defining moment in Essie’s character
- Tension and pacing, especially in the Triangle factory fire scene—so extraordinarily vivid I could feel the blast of heat. The longer, breathless sentences here were brilliant. Loved the phrase, “a clot of girls.”
- The dialogue/dialect—very true to the Lower East Side immigrant experience
- Characterization—complex, layered portraits and emotional depth, including Essie’s relationship with her mother.
- The whole Zelda thing—beautifully executed, provocative, and tense. After the fire, Essie’s experience with seeing Zelda was remarkable and anyone who has come close to death or witnessed a loved one’s death can relate to the surreal experience.
- The immigrant experience—felt true.
- Voice—for the most part, Essie could have been considered an unreliable narrator, and I liked that. We as readers knew the truth and waited for Essie to acknowledge it. The first person worked well and was the only way to tell the story.
The not-so-good things
- Use of Yiddish—didn’t work for me and its sprinklings seemed capricious
- Jimmy Eagan—why couldn’t he be Jewish? Maybe a well-to-do German or Sephardic Jew?
- Harriet Abbott—although I appreciate that her character had an historic foundation, her inclusion felt contrived.
- Obvious research—at first, I was put off by the research “showing” in the writing. Either I got used to it later in the book or it was more seamlessly integrated.
- Saulie—wanted to see more of him. He, too, seemed to be thrown into the mix for the sake of the plot.
Overall rating: 4.5 out of 5!