In my upcoming novel, Miracle at the Sideshow: An Astounding Novel of the First Infant Incubators, the main character is Sophie Rosenfeld, a fictional 18-year-old young lady who lives with her mother and four sisters in New York’s Lower East Side Neighborhood in 1911, a tumultuous time in general in New York City. Through her eyes, I tell the story of Dr. Martin Couney, inventor of the first incubators, during a snapshot in time of his career.
While the miraculous capabilities of the incubator are the main theme of the novel, I included the richness of the Lower East Side and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to add irreplaceable insight into the times in which Dr. Couney lived. I became enamored with New York’s Lower East Side history when I visited The Tenement Museum there—and which I highly recommend if you are planning a visit to the Big Apple. The New York Public Library has a fascinating and detailed booklet about the Lower East Side that’s worth a read if you’d like to learn more.
In an article from the Library of Congress about Lower East Side immigrants at that time, they write:
“…the Lower East Side was still a very difficult place to live–and a crowded one. By the year 1900, the district was packed with more than 700 people per acre, making it the most crowded neighborhood on the planet. The reformer Jacob Riis described a visit to a typical tenement building occupied by Eastern European Jewish families: ‘I have found in three rooms father, mother, twelve children, and six boarders. They sleep on the half-made clothing for beds. I found that several people slept in a subcellar four feet by six, on a pile of clothing that was being made.”
The two photos below are ones I took while visiting the area in March, 2020, right as the pandemic was breaking out.
In my novel, Sophie’s work in the shirtwaist factory leads her to meet Clara Lemlich, a small but mighty woman who made giant strides in improving conditions for workers in the garment industry. In an article by PBS’s American Experience, Triange Fire: Clara Lemlich and the Uprising of the 20,000, they write:
“Like many Jewish and Italian immigrant laborers, Lemlich joined the textile-manufacturing workforce only two weeks after arriving in New York. At the Gotham shirtwaist factory, women worked 11 hours a day, six days a week, for starting wages of $3 a week — conditions that reduced workers ‘to the status of machines,’ wrote 17-year-old Lemlich. Appalled by these circumstances, Lemlich joined the executive board of a local chapter of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), a relatively new organization gaining momentum in the fight for workers’ rights. In that role, Lemlich led picket lines, wrote opinion pieces, and organized strikes to improve factory conditions. Lemlich and her supporters were often physically harmed by policemen and thugs hired by factory owners. In one case Lemlich was hospitalized after a beating she received while standing in the picket line.”
On November 22nd, 1909, Lemlich helped incite a strike that ultimately proved instrumental to industrial labor reform.
You can learn all about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, as well as Clara Lemlich, at the memorial website, https://trianglememorial.org/clara-lemlich/
With that background, and without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to Sophie through a little interview:
Hello, Sophie! Welcome to the blog. Readers would love to learn more about you.
Where were you born?
I was born in Belorussia, which is now called Ukraine, in the late 1800’s.
Who are your parents?
My mother, Yette, and no father, Semyon, brought us to America in the early 1900’s to escape pogroms. We surely would have been killed if we had stayed.
Where do you live?
Now we live on Ludlow Street, a bustling street full of fellow immigrants and busy marketplaces.
What do you do for a living?
My mother, four sisters and I work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory making the popular white shirtwaists women wear with long skirts.
What is your greatest achievement?
I am very proud to have learned English and to be able to read any book I’d like from the library.
What is your favorite food?
My mother makes the best krupnik soup. That is a soup that contains potatoes, barley, many vegetables depending on what is in season such as carrots, celery, leeks, onions, dried mushrooms, and meat. It is delicious with bread and butter. I heard there will be a recipe for it in the back of the book!
What do you like to do for fun?
I love to go to the library, and my sisters and I go to the neighborhood settlement house for dances and other activities.
Do you have any pets?
No, we do not keep pets. But there are plenty of geese, chickens,stray cats, and dogs which live in our alleys and sometimes even our hallways and basements. But the landlord does not look fondly on them being indoors.
What do you most hope readers take away from your story?
I hope they can see that every generation has terrible things to live through, and terrible things people do to other people. But more than that, I hope they see that there is much good that can be done in the world, even when no one believes in you, or you feel too small to make a difference. It is possible then and now for one person to make a difference.
I hope this interview with Sophie sparks your interest in Miracle at the Sideshow, and that you’ll consider pre-ordering today. The paperback version should be up for pre-ordering in July, so stay tuned!
Be sure to click the many links in this article to learn about the fascinating history of this time and location in America’s history.
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