Fire An­gels

El­iz­a­beth Kern

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Fiction - MEG NOLA

Chicago Re­view Press Soft­cover $14.99 (320pp) 978-1-61373-629-6

This is a heart­break­ing and en­gross­ing nov­el­iza­tion of part of Chicago’s his­tory.

El­iz­a­beth Kern’s Fire An­gels is a nov­el­iza­tion of the tragic 1958 fire that de­stroyed Chicago’s Our Lady of the An­gels School and killed nine­tytwo chil­dren and three nuns. The book re­calls the hor­ror of that day, and the im­pact it had upon the city and the na­tion.

Lov­ing knowl­edge of Chicago adds a spe­cial di­men­sion to Fire An­gels. The close-knit, north­west-side neigh­bor­hood where Our Lady of the An­gels once stood is well de­tailed and rep­re­sented. Ital­ian, Ir­ish, and Pol­ish fam­i­lies sent their chil­dren to the Catholic school, which had over 1,500 stu­dents.

In an in­ter­est­ing turn, the en­tity of fire it­self be­comes a char­ac­ter in the book. Fire takes many forms, so its nar­ra­tive pres­ence comes and goes, but the voice is as brash and street-smart as one of Chicago au­thor Nel­son Al­gren’s hus­tlers, while also sound­ing com­pul­sively con­trite. “When I’m con­tained, I’m quite harm­less,” the fire notes. He’s the warmth within fire­places, the fuel that cooks de­li­cious meals, or the flick­er­ing beauty of can­dle­light. But once let loose, he can turn evil and vo­ra­cious, with­out self-con­trol.

Be­cause Fire An­gels is based on truth, its im­pact is in­tense. Real peo­ple lost their lives, and par­ents watched in hor­ror as the bod­ies of their sons and daugh­ters were brought out by fire­fight­ers. For the sur­vivors, years of psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma and skin grafts be­came part of their fu­ture, and a once tightly con­nected neigh­bor­hood changed into a trou­bled pocket of loss and death.

Kern’s por­trait of the name­less boy who most likely started the fire, and his un­for­tu­nate

fas­ci­na­tion with flames and matches, is com­pelling. She shows that while the boy did light the matches, the build­ing it­self had al­ready ex­hib­ited many fire-haz­ard con­di­tions. The Catholic Church did not want to be ex­posed to law­suits or in­ves­ti­ga­tions. In­stead, the arch­bishop of Chicago urged par­ents to ac­cept God’s will, “for in fire, gold is tested.”

The story is heart­break­ingly en­gross­ing, and part of Chicago’s liv­ing his­tory.

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