- The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives by Bryant Simon
The twenty-five souls who perished in the devastating 1991 chicken-processing plant fire in small-town Hamlet, North Carolina, deserve to have their story told by a scholar who can convey their full humanity on the written [End Page 750] page. In his new book, Bryant Simon has done just that, poignantly memorializing the victims of "poultry capitalism," a system that privileged cheap food over the lives of working-class Americans (p. 79). Simon spent six years conducting interviews and examining every archive, oral history, scrap of paper, and death certificate he could find to make sure he got this story right. And by diving into the little things, Simon offers big takeaways, arguing that Americans gave up on each other and embraced a politics of personal responsibility after 1970 that ultimately proved ineffective at enriching Americans' bodies or bank accounts.
The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives is packed with drama, starting with a minute-by-minute breakdown of the 1991 fire at the Imperial Food Products plant. Here, Simon introduces a cast of characters, many of whom readers follow throughout the book. The victims in this story are not statistics; they are mothers, fathers, and church deacons—real people with real lives. Readers meet Loretta Goodwin, Mildred Lassiter Moates, Mary Alice Quick, Philip Dawkins, and many others, some who died in the fire, others who were lucky enough to survive, though mangled and bruised. Readers also meet Emmett Roe and Brad Roe, the father-son team who, beginning in the 1980s, established cost-cutting production methods in Hamlet that would ultimately cost Moates and Dawkins their lives.
One of Simon's central points is that the Roes were able to cut corners to create cheap food because by the 1980s and 1990s Americans had stopped investing in their government. On this point, he discusses the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, showing how the Richard Nixon White House and subsequent administrations failed to give the agency the resources or the authority it needed to be an effective regulatory body. A commitment to cheap government, in other words, meant that no federal inspector ever raised the alarm about a door at the Imperial plant that was locked from the outside and that impeded the egress of workers seeking to escape the 1991 inferno.
It did not have to be this way. Simon spends considerable time discussing what Hamlet looked like before the pursuit of cheap goods produced by cheap labor became the signature of the American economy. He shows how some Hamlet residents, many working for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, once embraced labor unions that could fight for worker protections and decent wages. "The issue with the South, then, was not that southern workers didn't like unions," he writes. "It was that the region was late to industrialize, lacked investment, and didn't attract as many highly capitalized auto or steel plants and railroad facilities as some other parts of the country" (p. 36). Once airliners and highways emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, union bastions in the South, such as the railroad, disappeared, forcing southern laborers to accept jobs that paid much less for dangerous work.
Simon presents a familiar story about the American South and the anti-unionism, lax regulations, and racial discrimination that created the cheap labor markets and favorable political climate that attracted men like Emmett Roe to the Sun Belt after 1970. But he also tells a national story that exposes the hollowness of the politics of personal responsibility that emerged in the wake of stagflation and the energy crisis. The Hamlet Fire should become standard fare [End Page 751] alongside books such as Daniel T. Rodgers's Age of Fracture (Cambridge, Mass., 2011) that help explain why so many Americans abandoned the conviction that valuing those who...