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The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives
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"Captivating and brilliantly conceived. . . [The Hamlet Fire] will provide readers with insights into our current national politics."—The Washington Post A "gifted writer" (Chicago Tribune) uses a long forgotten factory fire in small-town North Carolina to show how cut-rate food and labor have become the new American norm

For decades, the small, quiet town of Hamlet, North Carolina, thrived thanks to the railroad. But by the 1970s, it had become a postindustrial backwater, a magnet for businesses searching for cheap labor with little or almost no official oversight. One of these businesses was Imperial Food Products. The company paid its workers a dollar above the minimum wage to stand in pools of freezing water for hours on end, scraping gobs of fat off frozen chicken breasts before they got dipped in battered and fried into golden brown nuggets and tenders. If a worker complained about the heat or the cold or missed a shift to take care of their children or went to the bathroom too often they were fired. But they kept coming back to work because Hamlet was a place where jobs were scarce. Then, on the morning of September 3, 1991, the day after Labor Day, this factory that had never been inspected burst into flame. Twenty-five people—many of whom were black women with children, living on their own—perished that day behind the plant's locked and bolted doors.

Eighty years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, industrial disasters were supposed to have been a thing of the past. After spending several years talking to local residents, state officials, and survivors of the fire, award-winning historian Bryant Simon has written a vivid, potent, and disturbing social autopsy of this town, this factory, and this time that shows how cheap labor, cheap government, and cheap food came together in a way that was bound for tragedy.

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Street Date:
09/05/2017
Language:
English
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9781620972397
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APA Citation (style guide)

Bryant Simon. (2017). The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives. The New Press.

Chicago / Turabian - Author Date Citation (style guide)

Bryant Simon. 2017. The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives. The New Press.

Chicago / Turabian - Humanities Citation (style guide)

Bryant Simon, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives. The New Press, 2017.

MLA Citation (style guide)

Bryant Simon. The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives. The New Press, 2017.

Note! Citation formats are based on standards as of July 2010. Citations contain only title, author, edition, publisher, and year published. Citations should be used as a guideline and should be double checked for accuracy.
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"Captivating and brilliantly conceived. . . [The Hamlet Fire] will provide readers with insights into our current national politics."
—The Washington Post
A "gifted writer" (Chicago Tribune) uses a long forgotten factory fire in small-town North Carolina to show how cut-rate food and labor have become the new American norm

For decades, the small, quiet town of Hamlet, North Carolina, thrived thanks to the railroad. But by the 1970s, it had become a postindustrial backwater, a magnet for businesses searching for cheap labor with little or almost no official oversight. One of these businesses was Imperial Food Products. The company paid its workers a dollar above the minimum wage to stand in pools of freezing water for hours on end, scraping gobs of fat off frozen chicken breasts before they got dipped in battered and fried into golden brown nuggets and tenders. If a worker complained about the heat or the cold or missed a shift to take care...

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title
The Hamlet Fire
fullDescription


"Captivating and brilliantly conceived. . . [The Hamlet Fire] will provide readers with insights into our current national politics."
—The Washington Post
A "gifted writer" (Chicago Tribune) uses a long forgotten factory fire in small-town North Carolina to show how cut-rate food and labor have become the new American norm

For decades, the small, quiet town of Hamlet, North Carolina, thrived thanks to the railroad. But by the 1970s, it had become a postindustrial backwater, a magnet for businesses searching for cheap labor with little or almost no official oversight. One of these businesses was Imperial Food Products. The company paid its workers a dollar above the minimum wage to stand in pools of freezing water for hours on end, scraping gobs of fat off frozen chicken breasts before they got dipped in battered and fried into golden brown nuggets and tenders. If a worker complained about the heat or the cold or missed a shift to take care of their children or went to the bathroom too often they were fired. But they kept coming back to work because Hamlet was a place where jobs were scarce. Then, on the morning of September 3, 1991, the day after Labor Day, this factory that had never been inspected burst into flame. Twenty-five people—many of whom were black women with children, living on their own—perished that day behind the plant's locked and bolted doors.

Eighty years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, industrial disasters were supposed to have been a thing of the past. After spending several years talking to local residents, state officials, and survivors of the fire, award-winning historian Bryant Simon has written a vivid, potent, and disturbing social autopsy of this town, this factory, and this time that shows how cheap labor, cheap government, and cheap food came together in a way that was bound for tragedy.

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reviews
      • premium: False
      • source: The Hollywood Reporter
      • content:

        Praise for Hamlet Fire:
        "This gripping and moving account of what happened and why goes far beyond what Morgan Spurlock attempts in his new documentary about the chicken industry."

      • premium: False
      • source: The Washington Post
      • content: "It is testament to Simon's reportorial instincts and research that he has found this sprawling. . . story in the detritus of that now-forgotten fire. His trail from that day through poultry economics to a core of new American values is captivating and brilliantly conceived, and will provide readers with insights into our current national politics."
      • premium: False
      • source: Minneapolis Star-Tribune
      • content: "[A] prodigiously researched and penetrating analysis."
      • premium: False
      • source: Publishers Weekly (starred)
      • content: "A multidimensional volume about a fatal 1991 fire at a chicken processing plant in North Carolina [that] connects the disaster in Hamlet to increasing consumer demand for cheap goods and cites disasters in other industries also driven by low prices. The Hamlet tragedy was not an isolated incident, Simon reminds readers, but part of a wider system of profit-driven labor exploitation."
      • premium: False
      • source: Booklist
      • content: "Engaging and humanizing . . . [Simon] uses the horrific event of a devastating accident at a chicken-processing plant in rural North Carolina to examine the consequences of the modern American convenience diet, where everything is expendable."
      • premium: False
      • source: Kirkus Reviews
      • content: "A vivid, highly disturbing narrative with relevance to current discussions of economic inequality and workplace safety."
      • premium: False
      • source: Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize for History
      • content: "In haunting and powerful prose, historian Bryant Simon lays bare just how costly it really is, just how ugly it truly is, when Americans insist on cheap. As his meticulously researched examination of the 1991 Hamlet fire makes so painfully clear, real people--overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately black people--pay a high price indeed for this nation's insatiable desire for cheap food and cheap government. But thanks to Simon's careful reconstruction of the forces and circumstances that led so many to suffer in this one tiny North Carolina town, as well as his searing analysis of why those who lived and worked there mattered so little, readers are left with only one conclusion: America finally must commit itself to decent wages, safe workplaces, sufficient health care, and everything else that human beings need. And, if that costs us all a bit more, so be it."
      • premium: False
      • source: Jefferson Cowie, author of Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class
      • content: "Bryant Simon plunges into the horror of an industrial fire and emerges with a gripping tale of capitalism gone wrong. Sifting through the wreckage, he unearths story after story of the unsustainable cost of cheap: a reckless economy, a cut-rate government, factory food, and disposable lives. Simon's forensics are written with force, clarity, and gripping detail. The Hamlet Fire is a heartbreaking history of the hollowing out of the American dream."
      • premium: False
      • source: Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction
      • content: "What appears cheap comes at an expensive cost--often life itself if life itself is worth valuing. But lives in the United States--especially poor Black lives--are as cheap as the food and the government that is not sustaining those lives, Bryant Simon reveals in absorbing prose and striking analysis. The Hamlet Fire presents the smoldering death day of those twenty-five small town North Carolinians not as an industrial accident. Simon heroically presents this tragedy as a regularity in the unknown life of present-day industrial America where 'cheap' lives lavishly and valued life is dead. The Hamlet Fire is an oracle."
      • premium: False
      • source: Wiley Cash, author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
      • content: "Bryant Simon's The Hamlet Fire is a hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism that is steeped in economic history and cultural theory. It's also the story of a community that's fallen through the cracks of the prelapsarian American Dream, a community of people who read like tragic characters from a literary novel. This is a study of what happens when generational poverty meets capitalist greed, but it's also a testament to the strength of the American fabric that binds us all."
      • premium: True
      • source: Publisher's Weekly
      • content:

        Starred review from July 31, 2017
        Cheap food comes at a significant cost, writes Simon (Everything but the Coffee), professor of history at Temple University, in this multidimensional volume about a fatal 1991 fire at a chicken processing plant in North Carolina. At Imperial Food Products in the quiet town of Hamlet, 25 people died after a “hose came loose and launched into a wild dance, spewing flammable oil-based Chevron 32 hydraulic fluid in every direction.” A blaze erupted in the building, which lacked functioning fire sprinklers. Simon describes Hamlet as a town whose fortunes had shifted as factory jobs became scarce throughout the rural South and low-skilled workers became easily replaceable. Imperial owners Emmett and Brad Roe, whose business was “mostly cheap food,” and other similarly negligent employers benefited from lax government oversight, particularly of labor regulations. Though criminal charges and civil lawsuits were later filed, litigation could never erase the trauma that families and survivors endured, as Simon makes clear. He connects the disaster in Hamlet to increasing consumer demand for cheap goods and cites disasters in other industries also driven by low prices. The Hamlet tragedy was not an isolated incident, Simon reminds readers, but part of a wider system of profit-driven labor exploitation.

      • premium: True
      • source: Kirkus
      • content:

        July 15, 2017
        The disheartening but well-told account of a grisly 1991 factory fire that exemplifies the social costs of institutional racism and "cheap" capitalism.Simon (History/Temple Univ.; Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, 2009, etc.) uses the forgotten flashpoint of the Imperial Food Products fire in Hamlet, North Carolina, in which 25 people died, to synthesize an unsettling argument about an insidious "social gospel of cheap" that has overtaken American life since the economic jolts of the 1970s. "This was a serious, and perhaps purposeful, side effect of the business-first policies that had flipped the New Deal and Fordism on their heads," he writes. In Hamlet, a relentlessly pro-business attitude allowed the factory to maintain an unsafe, grueling workplace for people with few prospects; the fire victims included African-American single mothers and white working-class people whose own prospects had diminished with the disappearance of stable railroad and industrial jobs. Simon incorporates a broader regional history that reveals how such towns became dependent on the "brutally competitive business...of fast food products." He illustrates this with a stomach-churning narrative of the historical transformation of chicken into a cheaply produced, unhealthy foodstuff, farmed out to individual contractors treated like sharecroppers and middlemen like Imperial with little oversight. These processes were accelerated by the revived Southern antipathy toward unions and long-running racial tensions; during the blaze, a black township's fire department was kept on standby, confirming a sense of racial bitterness layered on top of class stratification. "Hamlet's racial geography only added to the already festering distrust that, in turn, exacerbated PTSD symptoms," writes Simon. Despite the temporal distance, Simon creates in-depth characterizations, ranging from Imperial's owners, portrayed as callous out-of-towners who kept factory doors locked to reduce theft, to compromised local officials to desperate workers who barely survived. He conveys this sad tale via admirable research and a clear voice that only occasionally becomes didactic. A vivid, highly disturbing narrative with relevance to current discussions of economic inequality and workplace safety.

        COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

      • premium: True
      • source: Booklist
      • content:

        August 1, 2017
        Simon, professor of history at Temple University, uses the horrific event of a devastating accident at a chicken-processing plant in rural North Carolina to examine the consequences of the modern American convenience diet, where everything is expendable. Numerous interviews with survivors put the reader at the scene, and Simon incorporates the works of many other scholars to place the Imperial Food Products factory directly into the larger economic and social landscapewhere relentless cost cutting provides low-wage workers with inexpensive food laden with fat, sugar, and salt. Simon discusses the ideology of cheap as a return to the Gilded Age, where dangerous and fatal working conditions, low wages, and government indifference produced the Triangle Shirtwaist fire 80 years earlier. This is not a happy story, nor does it have a happy ending in the way outrage at the Triangle fire helped spark the New Deal, but it is engaging and humanizing. In a time in which so much cruelty is tolerated, this book will be a strong addition to any history or social sciences collection, and well worth the reader's time.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2017, American Library Association.)

subtitle
A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives
popularity
128
publisher
The New Press
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