January 24, 2011
REVIEW: SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE by Libby Fischer Hellman
This book is constructed in three parts. The first and last sections occur in the present day, while the middle section takes place during 1968 and 1969. The first section throws a lot of characters at the reader very quickly with virtually no explanation as to who most of them are or their relationship to each other. Nevertheless, the reader learns enough about Dar and Lila - who've never met - for the tension to be tightly coiled and for the delicious twist at the end of the section to have a thwacking great wallop.
The mid-section is more leisurely paced, and the reader gets to know the many characters introduced earlier, who made up a self-styled collective during one of the most socially turbulent periods in American history: Dar, the activist leader; Payton, the firebrand; Teddy, scion of a politically conservative family; Casey, the 'connector,' the guy who brought people together; Rain, the photographer and free spirit; and beautiful Alix, the naive daughter of wealth, who is loved by both Dar and Casey.
The tension in this section is built on character conflicts rather than on the kind of life-threatening action scenes that typify a thriller. Hellmann gives the reader a tour of the major events of the late '60s (the war in Viet Nam and the student protests against the war; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the Democratic National Convention; the Chicago Seven; the Black Panthers, SDS and the Weathermen; the Chicago Seven; the shootings at Kent State), and how her characters were either a part of or were affected by the events. The political passions and the desire to change the world for the better are what brings these disparate characters together and eventually, these are the things that tear them apart. Oh, and a bomb, of course.
The final section of the book resumes precisely where the first section leaves off, as Dar and Lila must come to an understanding and an alliance if either of them is to survive. Here the author throws another twist at her main characters that ratchets up the tension.
Hellmann clearly knows the hippie era well (except that Ringo's birthday is July 7, not July 8, and a certain song by The Byrds is misidentified). I couldn't help grinning when one of my favorite expressions, FFO, was used. And she understands and conveys the very real passions and the conditions that drove so many young people to take to the streets in protest. She also lets the "establishment" voices have their say. SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE is both a thriller and a historical novel, replete with a cast of memorable, often moving, characters.