Monday, February 4, 2013

"Black Fire" by Robert Graysmith (2012)

When Mark Twain was living in San Francisco during the 1860’s, he became acquainted with a man named Tom Sawyer. That’s right; there really was a Tom Sawyer. And, as a bonus for me, he came from Brooklyn, New York.  Twain met Sawyer at the bath house run by Ed Stahle on Montgomery Street when the young Twain was working as a reporter for the Daily Morning Call. While in the bath house the two would play cards and swap tales. Mr. Sawyer’s adventures were so awe inspiring, and far ranging, that Twain never forgot about them, later incorporating them into his iconic book.

Robert Graysmith, author of several books, including “The Laughing Gorilla”, has done it again. He has taken on the subjects of Mark Twain, the history of San Francisco during the Gold Rush;  and all the characters of those heady days; weaving them together in a rollicking and highly entertaining fashion, to form this book.

The history of fire fighting in San Francisco is in many ways the same as in other cities of the time. Different private fire fighters competed with one another to be the first on the scene of a fire. There were pitched battles waged between these competitors, even while the fires raged, consuming the buildings the firemen were fighting so hard to protect. To make matters worse, there was no real building code to speak of, and houses were built of any available material, including oilcloth and canvas. Along with the wood used in almost every structure in town, the place was just waiting to burn down.

And burn it did; six times; between Christmas Eve of 1849 and the early summer of 1851. To help matters along there was an arsonist; or more than one; who may have even been a firefighter.  Mr. Sawyer’s gripping accounts of the battles waged by the competing fire companies, along with the complete indifference of both the populace and their elected officials to the formation of a Fire Department, would make this a great book all by itself. But, by exploring the relationship between Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer, the author has gone further in giving this book a special place in any collection.

In his usual, almost lyrical, fashion the author has given life to the cold hard facts of how many buildings were destroyed and how much it all cost in dollars. The description of the horror could only be described by one who not only lived it, but by someone who fought the blazes and ate the smoke.

Sawyer was a firefighter in New York before boarding a ship that took him around the horn of South America and on to San Francisco. He was, at times, a firefighter, a seaman, and eventually; playing upon the notoriety brought on by Mark Twain’s book; he became a very well-known saloon keeper.

Although the story of the real life existence of Tom Sawyer has been told before, it has always been a short footnote explaining that there really was a Tom Sawyer. And that’s about it. Mr. Graysmith is; I believe; the first author to seriously undertake the telling of the entire story of both Mr. Sawyer, and how his real life exploits came to inspire Mark Twain to write one of the most beloved American novels.

No comments:

Post a Comment