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."
The Hollywood Reporter
"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."
The Washington Post
"[A] prodigiously researched and penetrating analysis."
"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."
Publishers Weekly (starred)
"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."
"A vivid, highly disturbing narrative with relevance to current discussions of economic inequality and workplace safety."
"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."
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
"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."
Jefferson Cowie, author of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class
"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."
Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning , winner of the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction
"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."
Wiley Cash, author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
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.