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Published on October 20, 2013

The last book about a meat processing plant that made me cry was The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair; the last book about a deadly fire that made me cry was Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire. In A Southern Tragedy, In Crimson and Yellow, Lawrence Naumoff combines the clarity and passion of Sinclair and other 20th-century social realists with the same poet’s eye for telling, humanizing details and vivid touches of regional culture that mark the very best of today’s Southern writing, and creates a heart-wrenching and sobering tale.

A Southern Tragedy takes as its basic material the horrific 1991 fire at a Hamlet, North Carolina chicken processing plant, which killed dozens of workers and injured dozens more. In a heartbreaking echo of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, plant management had locked emergency doors and workers were trapped inside.

The basic story is tragic enough. Where Naumoff’s novelization brings additional emotional power is in his vivid evocation of the town and its people, and of the intermeshed destinies and choices that brought both victims and survivors together. That human element is what gives the story its lasting power as a haunting elegy and a call to action.

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