Set the Night on Fire, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Allium Press, $14.99 (trade paperback), $24.99 (hardcover).
In 1968 I was ten, living in downtown Chicago with my family. The world seemed like an interesting and dangerous place; it wasn't one my parents seemed to trust. I have formative memories of the Vietnam war on TV, of older kids in school singing anti war songs in the hallway, and the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. To me at ten, that was the way the world was. I was fascinated to read Hellmann's account of living through this time during the even more formative college years. It gave me a different perspective and helped me understand some of the factions within the different radical groups: the Weathermen, the SDS and to some extent, the Black Panthers.
First and foremost, of course, Hellmann's book is a novel, and it's really on an epic scale, even more so than her first novel (An Eye for Murder). This account feels personal; she certainly crafts this story with a lot of passion. To me an epic takes in a couple of generations, and needs to be set during some historically significant time that plays a part in the lives of the characters. Hellmann nails this down. Her central character, Lila, begins the novel almost in a fog as she loses every family member she thought she had, suddenly and tragically. Of course there is more to the story.
As it becomes clear that Lila has some kind of tie to Dar, who has recently been released from prison, Hellmann takes us back to the past to clarify the ties that existed among the several characters she's sketched in in the first part of the book. The meat of the novel takes place in Chicago during the summers of 1968 through 1970.
Hellmann captures the uncertainty and passion of the time, as she places her characters in a communal apartment where they work as they can and work for the organizations they believe in. As time goes forward, the group is split apart as you might imagine: some are more radical than others, some more practical. Alix, Lila's mother, is perhaps the most conventional one. She and her boyfriend, Dar, mentor (to use today's language) a young Native American boy named Billy who comes to their apartment to hang out, eat, and read the latest MAD magazine. If you think progress hasn't been made since the 60's, follow Billy's tortuous journey through the health system at the time.
Billy brings out Lila's maternal side and she's almost delighted when she discovers she's pregnant. When an eventual irrevocable act of violence splinters the group completely, with tragic results, Dar ends up in prison. And we are fast forwarded again to the present with Lila and Dar forging an uneasy alliance as someone is trying to kill them.
Hellmann lays the groundwork of her story very carefully, and as the roots she's laid down take shape in the present day story, by this part of the novel they have a true emotional resonance. I think the most moving part of the story is the former radical Dar's adjustment to the adult world; what he's willing to risk has changed, but then, as most adults do, he has more at stake. Hellmann has deftly captured the difference between generations, with their pluses and negatives.
The most bittersweet epigraph to the story of the passionate, communal living radicals is voiced by Hellman's character, Rain: "When we started living together, we thought we could do anything. We were special. Cooler, more daring. Our words, our parties...But we've been fooling ourselves. We've been pulled along by the current, hoping to grasp a branch along the way that would give us a sense of our own importance. The truth is we're no better- or important - than any other generation." Maybe that's true, but this is a wonderfully evocative read, for those who were ten, twenty, thirty or forty in 1968. Settle in for a great ride.
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