We’ve had a couple weeks of respite from these, so let’s get back into the trash fire that is Sunfire. Other trash fires just don’t compare to this glory of these books.
Rachel, Vivian Schurfranz, 1986.
The premise of this book is not, by itself, horrible. (That’s pretty high praise for one of these books, I know.) Unfortunately, it is ground that has been trodden very well in a zillion other books, including not one but two different Dear America books and a whole slew of others. Why is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster so endlessly popular for kids’ and YA fiction? This seems like a strange choice to me! There have been (unfortunately) many, many, many factory disasters, and there’s no end of trade union drama during that part of American history, but the Triangle disaster is like catnip for mediocre fiction writers.
Anyway, our titular Rachel is a Jewish immigrant from Poland, which you can tell because we start right in on Page One with the horrifyingly bad writing. “This day, August 11, 1910, was a momentous occasion!” Yeah, that is uncalled for. We launch right into discussions of pogroms on Page Two, see the Statue of Liberty on the same page, and have awkward introductions to her parents and younger brother on Page Three. I see we’re wasting no time here and we have hit all of the standards so far in “This Is A Book About Immigration, How Many Cliches Can We Hit?” Do you think there will also be a tense scene with the Ellis Island officials? (Spoiler: duh.)
After the Tense Officials Scene, Rachel’s family is met at the docks by their cousins, the Rosens, who take them to their apartment. A lot of the “immigration is terribly hard!” is glossed over here because the Rosens have a lovely apartment with enough space to bring in four extra people with zero trouble at all even though there’s already five people living there. But hey, Rachel sees poor people doing piecework and muses on how terrible it is. Deep. Anyway, Rachel is super excited to meet her cousin Hannah, who’s just her age and works at the Triangle factory, but first she meets Joshua—an extremely handsome and very traditional neighbour. Joshua doesn’t believe in education for women, and thinks they should be homemakers, but Rachel wants to keep learning. Conveniently, she already knows English, but Joshua is super dismayed that Rachel wants to become a citizen. The worst part of this is that Rachel acts like it’s completely unprecedented and bizarre that he would expect a woman to be just a housewife, when it was a totally normal and everyday decision. What.
Anyway, when Hannah comes in and sees Joshua macking on Rachel, she’s all offended and stalks away and is super upset that she has to share a room with an interloper. Rachel, who desperately wanted to have her cousin be her BFF, is shocked—shocked! I say—at this turn of events. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that Hannah is upset because she thinks that Rachel stole her man, but Rachel doesn’t figure this out until Hannah tells her on page 150. That is not a joke. And that’s the primary conflict for the book, so….let’s just say it’s not a great setup.
Let’s move onto the actual plot. Rachel is on her way to interview for a job at the Triangle company, because of course she is, when a strange dude (literally a strange dude, as in weird, but also he is a stranger) strolls up to her and declares “My name is Nathan Meyers, and I’m the number one cub reporter at this city’s greatest newspaper, The New York Times!” Oh God, I can barely type that without cringing SO hard my shoulders are now one with my ears. He’s always wearing “a jaunty plaid suit.” Check out the cover again—you know they end up together because they’re embracing on the cover, but oh my GOD, that suit is so loud you could hear it on the moon. And what a weird grimace on that dude. What the hell is going on here? But let’s return to the bus, where Rachel ignores the weird dude pleading “I really would like to be your friend!” AS SHE SHOULD because that is WICKED DISTURBING. It’s time for your daily Moral From Sunfire: Don’t fucking pay attention to men who walk up to you in public and demand your name after calling you “pretty girl” and tell you they want to be your friend! Everything about this is insanely disturbing!
She gets the job at Triangle, but for whatever reason she’s assigned to be a switchboard operator instead of a machine operator. Who even knows why. She works next to a girl, Gina Pelozzi, whom you will not be surprised to learn is Italian, and they become friends with some awkward discussion about What’s Different In Poland And Italy.
My biggest problem with this book is the same problem I have with every single Sunfire book, which is that they are the single biggest example of presentism in historical fiction I’ve EVER seen, and I’ve read a lot of very mediocre romance novels. All the characters, as always, act exactly like 80s people transported into the past, and are always on the “right side” of whatever the issue of the day is. In this one, the issue is that Rachel has two boyfriends and her parents seem to not care a whit about her future and marriage. Not at all! That is pretty normal for a girl in 1986, probably, but not so much in 1910! Her parents just let her date whoever and do whatever, and this is just all so unrealistic that I can’t deal with it.
Whatever! Marching on with this mess. “Several weeks later,” Rachel runs into creepy Nathan again, who asks her out for a cup of coffee, and they find out they’re both super enthusiastic about America! Hooray! They go on a couple of dates, and then when Nathan finds out about Traditional Joshua, he starts trashing him. But Rachel keeps spending all this time with Joshua anyway, and then he asks her to “think about sharing your future with me,” which is a pretty wimpy way of starting the marriage conversation, but whatever. Rachel goes back and forth between spending time with Nathan at her “civics classes,” and Joshua at home with her family, and doesn’t make any decisions either way because why would she.
Rachel goes to a couple of the union meetings and listens to Samuel Gompers talk for a bit, and then Rachel learns that “the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was cited for having inadequate fire escapes. The list of abuses opened Rachel’s eyes. There was more to the struggle than she had realized!” Oh God. This is so awkwardly written and such a terrible example of foreshadowing. But this is all much less important than the date she goes on with Nathan, who wants to “move in together!…As husband and wife, of course!” and Rachel is floored that this guy she spends all this time with would want to marry her! Wow-ie! Who could have POSSIBLY seen this coming? Anyone with more brains than Rachel, which is why she’s so upset when her little brother points out that she has two boyfriends and Hannah has none, and that’s why Hannah is upset.
But this doesn’t seem to affect her very much, because she’s as deep as a puddle. Gina asks her to be her maid of honour, as people do when you have known them for a few months, over her two SISTERS. Gina is all delirious with joy about getting married, which is how you can tell she’s going to die in the Triangle fire that starts on the next page.
The fire itself is just so awkwardly written that it mostly seems like Rachel is just turning around and around in the smoky darkness. It’s just not as evocative as it should be! I mean, none of these books are exactly top-notch literature or anything, but when you read Hear My Sorrow there are some wonderfully painful and sad passages. This is like reading a fourth-grade newspaper account. Anyway, Rachel finds Hannah, who has been burned, and half-pulls and half-drags her up to the roof by her hair. “Desperately she wound several strands of Hannah’s long hair around her own blistered hands.” God, I hope it was more than “several strands,” because anyone who has ever gotten a few pieces of hair caught in a car door will know that A) it hurts like the devil and B) you can’t drag anyone anywhere with that.
They make it, and they’re rescued, and they’re both injured but more or less OK, just traumatized by the experience. Gina is dead, of course, and so are 145 other workers. While Rachel is lying in her bed of pain, she finds out that Nathan carried her home, and Joshua takes this opportunity to go on about how it’s no wonder she doesn’t want to marry a shopkeeper when newspaper are so much more exciting. There’s a time and a place, Joshua, and I feel like “immediately after your sort-of girlfriend survives a horrifying and deadly experience” is not the right place to bring up “so, your other boyfriend, huh?” This is why she doesn’t pick you, asshole.
Hannah apologizes to Rachel for being such an enormous snot, and says she doesn’t care about Joshua any more and her fondest wish now is that he and Rachel get married. Rachel is all “No, he’ll love you!” and that’s a shitty thing to foist on her cousin and new friend! “This guy was crazy about you and then fell for me and started going with me, but if I say so he’ll start going out with you instead! Then all will be well!” That’s a terrible message.
Rachel and Hannah attend the meetings together about the court case and the Triangle fire, and Nathan comes along, for “work.” Some other companies offer to employ some of the workers, and Rachel comes up trumps with a job as a model at a dress company, because of course she does. In case you forgot for a moment that Rachel is the most divinely beautiful creature to grace New York. When Joshua finds out, he starts yelling at her in the middle of the street, which isn’t particularly modest either, buddy. So Rachel starts spending more time with Nathan, because he doesn’t yell at her about shit, and then Joshua gets over his fit of fidgets and asks her out on a date to a band concert. They fly a kite, play tag, listen to the band, play on the playground, and peculiarly enough, slide down a slide, which is a neat trick considering that playground slides weren’t particularly common anywhere until the 1920s. Anyway, then Joshua asks her to “quit your job and come work for me.” She points out she has a job, and he says “It’s to clean my new apartment I’m moving into next month. Clean house, take care of your husband, and eventually raise our children.” Dude, you can just say “I want to marry you!” You don’t have to keep couching it in this weird nonsense about “jobs” and stuff! Just stop.
Nathan spots them, thinks they’re getting engaged, and then fucks off and goes out with some other girls in the meantime. So Rachel mopes and mopes around realizing that she doesn’t actually like Joshua “for a husband,” although she wants him for a friend, but frankly I don’t see why, as he’s kind of an ass. So she weeps all over the place while helping Hannah make a dress, and Hannah is like “dude, just say something.” (Not in so many words.) Rachel eventually confesses to Joshua that she doesn’t love him that way, although she gets bonus points in the cruelty stakes for telling him right to his face that she figured it out on the day they had that date in the park. Wow, way to grind him.
The month after that, Joshua takes up with Hannah and takes her out (again! Why? Don’t settle for him, Hannah! You can do so much better than taking your cousin’s sloppy seconds!), Rachel is resigning herself to a lonely, empty life at fifteen. Then Nathan turns up at her last civics class and tells her that he’s been dreaming of her and moping about how she’s going to marry Joshua. Dude, for a reporter, he doesn’t seem to be able to pick up on some fairly obvious gossip, or, you know, ASK QUESTIONS. Anyway, they confess that they’ve always loved each other and no one else, and they embrace, and the last line is “Dreams really could come true!” And I’m cringing again.
Rating: C-. I’m grading on a curve for these nonsense books, because holy smokes, this is definitely not good literature, but it’s significantly better than some of the other Sunfire novels. Yes, there’s wild presentism, and yes, the major problem is about boys instead of, you know, A MAJOR DISASTER, but there are some good points! There’s an interesting, if extremely short, subplot about union activity! Samuel Gompers makes an appearance! I’m really reaching at straws, but you know, this is really one of the more inoffensive books out there. For what it is (teen historical romance), it’s very far from the worst one out there. And that is…pretty weak praise, yeah, but good for a Sunfire!