Book Review: “City of Slaughter” by Cynthia Drew
Reviewed by Mary Ickes
In an interview for the New York Book Festival, Ms. Drew said, “Everything we see on TV and in the movies romanticizes the period … But New York City in 1900 was anything but romantic—it was smelly and dirty and crowded and people fought to stay alive.” The dangling fire escape on the cover of Ms. Drew’s novel confirms her assertion even before readers open the book. On March 25, 1911, 146 employees, locked on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Triangle Waist Company when a fire started, jumped from windows, suffocated in the stampede, plunged to their deaths when the pictured fire escape broke away from the wall, or perished inside the burning building. Through Carsie, Lilia, and Shalva Akselrod, Ms. Drew exposes the garment industry’s labor abuses and honors the victims.
Carsie (age 14) and Lilia Akselrod (9), orphaned when Cossacks kill their parents (1899), flee Lucava, a Russian village, for America hoping to connect with Moshie and Selig, their father’s brothers, in New York City.
Shalva (age 14) has worked for Melnick’s Coat Company since age 5, the year after emigrating from Russia with her father. She works at home ten hours daily, chalking label and sleeve positions on the 40 coats that she will finish that night at the factory. The cycle begins again when Shalva lugs home 40 more coats trying … to protect the bundle from street thugs angling to steal one or two or from toppling the entire load to the sidewalk. Because her work is inferior due to exhaustion, Melnick viciously beats her and docks her pay. Longing for a better life, Shalva marries Moshie Akselrod, who longs for an economic slave to support him and Selig. Ruffians who collect pimp money for gangster Monk Eastman give Shalva a paltry allowance in return for her entire check. She shares a dismal tenement room with Moshie, Selig, and a boarder. Shalva’s sole joy is her elderly father whom she rarely sees. Disheartened and lonely, Shalva consoles herself with Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, an opium-based tonic sold to calm children.
In response to an ad seeking the Akselrod family on behalf of newly arrived relatives, Shalva returns from the Hebrew Sheltering Society with Carsie and Lilia in tow. Moshie realizes that … if they made half the money Shalva brought home, life could be quite comfortable. He orders Carsie to Melnick’s, where her flawless stitching makes her a valued employee. Since Lilia is severely cross-eyed, the best he can do for her is a job … carrying hats for the Brooklyn milliners who had discovered that a pedestrian could weave through the tangle of Lower East Side immigrants and peddlers faster than a wagon could. With Carsie and Lilia steadily working, Moshie moves everyone to a two room tenement and permits Shalva to quit Melnick’s so she can market, cook, and do laundry for seven additional boarders. When Carsie returns from work a few months later and discovers Shalva dying from the tonic, Moshie sneers, “Let her drink herself to death, so what?” Instead, Carsie and Lilia nurse Shalva and assume her boarder duties while still working full time.
Life is good for Moishe and Selig—until they discover that Carsie and Lilia keep part of their wages: “That money is not yours. … You have no money of your own.” Rather than meekly submitting, Carsie demands to know exactly how much they contribute to monthly living expenses. Even worse for the uncles, Carsie and Lilia possess minds of their own. Disgusted by Tenth Ward living conditions, Carsie writes a protest letter published by the Jewish Daily Forward. Selig threatens her: “… There are boundaries to a woman thinking for herself—stepping over them will get you in trouble.” Beyond a Jewish woman ignoring proper demeanor, Moshie refers to Eastman, “… who depends on these people living just as they do. … You’ve put me in an awful position. …” They are equally disconcerted with Lilia who, with glasses, reads voraciously and spouts threatening ideals.
What the uncles cannot comprehend is the book’s main conflict: that Carsie and Lilia arrived in America determined to achieve a good life through hard work and determination. Their father, a man of ideas, owned the village’s print shop, their mother tutored them in Russian; and both parents encouraged their daughters’ ideals and dreams.
Carsie, therefore, diligently studies English, quits Melnick’s, and borrows money to open a hat business. Undaunted by Eastman’s goons following her, Carsie’s letters designate her the Voice of the Tenth Ward, where she also educates sweatshop children. Lilia decides that she can best help the Tenth Ward people by working days and studying medicine at New York University’s night classes.
Shalva, determined to avoid Mrs. Winslow while sitting Shiva for her father … [shakes] off the first primitive grip of opium. … Determined, like her nieces, to achieve a better life, Shalva finds a job selling and altering dresses. (With funds stolen from her purse, Moshie rides the trolley uptown every morning … where he [suns] himself in Union Square on pleasant afternoons while he [plays] dominoes with the Italians.
Carsie, Lilia, and Shalva’s narratives are all the more fascinating because they interact with historical figures whose actions and dialogues, of course, are fictitious, but entirely in character. As leader of the formidable Eastman Gang, Monk Eastman commanded a thousand underlings like Moshie and Selig. Carsie could have dated Arnold Rothstein, who worked his way up from Tenth Ward thug to Jewish Mafia kingpin during the early 1900s. Since Emma Goldman delivered babies for tenement women like Shalva, her appreciation of Carsie’s social justice ideals is entirely plausible.
Sense of place also enhances the novel’s authenticity. From Lucava on the open plains of Russia and the snug safety of their home behind the print shop, Carsie and Lilia endure the Lower East Side tenement room where … in the summer heat … they breathed … air that stank of open toilets, a stench that infused the Tenth Ward. Torrents of people on the streets dodge the Garbage mounded on the cobblestones – moldy bread, rotted fish, slimy vegetables, meat turning from green to black. … Most ominous, of course, is the Triangle Waist Factory towering over Carsie, Lilia, and Shalva’s destinies.
Whether reading City of Slaughter as a novel or to better understand the era, Reading Friends, you will find this a fascinating, well-crafted book because Ms. Drew’s interest began with the sweat shops that she observed while working in New York City’s modern-day garment industry. She assures us that, “Yes, they still exist.”
Cynthia Drew’s short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals including Rapid River (Short Fiction Prize, 2005), Mountainland (Humor Prize 2004), Perigee, Middle English Review and Taj Mahal, and in the anthologies New Century Voices and Scratch (as a winter quarterly winner, 2009). She teaches writing at the University of North Carolina’s Reuter Center in Asheville, and writes occasional essays for Western North Carolina Woman magazine. She is a practicing Private Investigator, loves to travel, garden and cook and lives with her photographer husband, Ken, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Asheville.
About her research, Ms. Drew reports: I researched the book various ways on the internet, through websites like Genealogy.com and the Ellis Island Site, and reading scores of books about the economics and politics of the period. Most valuable, though, were trips to New York City, interviewing a man from the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (himself a Russian immigrant), visiting the corner of Washington and Greene, where the building still stands that housed the Triangle Waist Factory, and many trips to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum …
City of Slaughter received the Forward National Literature Award’s Silver Medallion for Historical Fiction for 2013. The sequel, due in March 2014 … deals with the period 1921-1940: the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age.