As I’ve previously written posts about my favorite books on topics as diverse as the Old West and the great works of Russian Literature, I thought I would turn my attention to another subject near and dear to my heart; the fire service. Novels about firefighting are not all that common, and indeed, only one makes my list here. Part of it is because the job isn’t simply rushing from one emergency to the next, which does make for exciting reading. For a novel to be realistic, it would have to cover training time, meals, and sleeping. Hardly compelling stuff. Furthermore, raging structure fires are not as common as they once were, and professional firefighters today spend more time running EMS calls than they do putting out fires. So the books that follow are mostly non-fiction memoir type books, with the exception mentioned above. These are not technical books about the job, but rather books about either the history of the fire service or the experiences of someone in it.
The Bronx was burning before I was born. The men of Engine Company 82 fought a never ending battle against the red devil, responding to numerous fires each shift. Dennis Smith, a firefighter on Engine 82 also happened to be a talented wordsmith. His memoir, Report From Engine Co. 82 is a firefighting classic. Imagine if, rather than writing about World War One, Remarque wrote about life at what was, at the time, one of the busiest engine companies in the world. And that’s what this book is like. It is, perhaps, the greatest of all the firefighting memoirs and rises to the level of true literature. Smith wrote many books, including a novel called A Song For Mary which tells his story before he joined the fire department. He has also made contributions to fire service history. His History of Firefighting in America is an excellent, if somewhat hard to find these days, book. Recently, he penned a great book on the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. But Report rises to the top of the crowded field of fire department memoirs.
In graduate school, my research focused on the German Civil Defense system during World War Two. I had the opportunity to interview German firefighters who worked during the firebombing raids from 1943-45. This ignited, pardon the pun, in me a lifelong interest in how fire departments cope with the strain of wartime conditions when they find themselves on the front lines. Burning Issues is a unique account because it describes the activities of the Belfast Fire Brigade during the early years of The Troubles. No other fire service in Europe or America has had to cope with what the Fire Service of Northern Ireland has. For thirty years, terrorism tore their relatively small country apart. As part of the establishment, the fire brigade tried to stay above the sectarian issues which divided the country, and responded to calls from both communities. The author does an excellent job writing about what it was like working in that kind of environment. This is a tough book to get a copy of now, but if you can find one, buy it.
Larry Brown was a retired firefighter turned novelist from Oxford, Mississippi. His non-fiction book On Fire is a short but very interesting account of his time as a firefighter. It consists of a series of short vignettes which move from the humorous to the tragic, a fact which I think all of us current or retired firefighters can relate to. With a novelist’s skill, he tells stories which induce laughter and/or tears. Reading this book is rather like sitting around a campfire and listening to the author tell stories. It’s personal and engaging. Sadly, the author passed away several years ago, but he has left us with a great account of firefighting in the Deep South in the 70s and 80s. I’m sure William Faulkner would approve of this book.
If you are in the market for a more scholarly look at the development of the American Fire Service, look no further than Crucible of Fire. The author describes some of the great conflagrations of the 19th Century and explores how they impacted fire departments of the 20th Century. It’s about lessons learned and applied. As such, it might not appeal to the general reader, though firefighters, historians, or both will find much to like about it. Firefighting in the United States is long on tradition unimpeded by progress, so sometimes it is nice to see where some of those traditions came from. Fire departments are made up of humans, and as such, we tend to learn from our mistakes, thus finding things out “the hard way”. This book is a great read for young firefighters, who I think need to know some of our shared history, no matter how boring it might seem to them. The fundamental goal of firefighting, putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, has never changed, even though our apparatus and gear has.
3000 Degrees is the best book written on a single fire and the men who fought it. The author tells the tragic story of the 6 firefighters killed in the Worcester Cold Storage Fire in December of 1999. I was a young firefighter in Texas at the time, and I remember watching the news coverage of this fire. What the author does particularly well, is introduce you to the lives of the six men, so that when the unfortunate events occur, you can really feel the loss suffered by their families. It’s far more than just the story of a fire, it is an ode to those who answer the alarms, even knowing the risks they face. Not a terribly long read, it can be easily digested. It is also available as an Audiobook with an excellent narrator, so if that is more your cup of tea, you can enjoy it that way.
My final book is the only work of fiction on the list. Chicago 1871 is both a science fiction novel and a historical one. The science fiction angle comes from the fact that the protagonist travels back in time to Chicago on the eve of the Great Fire. While I actually don’t much care for time travel books, this one is the exception. Once we arrive in the past, the author does an incredible job painting a portrait of the Chicago Fire Department in the 19th Century. The information about how they lived and fought fires is well researched enough to be like reading entertaining non-fiction. The action scenes are very well done, and you can almost taste the smoke. I’m a first generation firefighter, and my son has no desire to enter the profession and so I’ll be the only generation, and I have no personal connection with the firefighters of old, other than a shared job. Sometimes, the book made me wish I had worked back then instead of when I did. But to work back then, I’d have to live back then, and I rather like having access to antibiotics. There aren’t many firefighting novels out there, but this one is the best I’ve read. Feel free to check out the author’s page here.
So there you have it, Dear Readers. Hopefully you’ll check out some of these books and find them as interesting as I did. Being a firefighter is the toughest job you’ll ever love. My years on the job made me the person I am today, for better or worse. Until next time, enjoy your holidays and I’ll see you at the big one.
I must say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is turning out to be quite the gaming experience. It’s a bit more involved than the first game was, but that isn’t a bad thing…as long as you remember to feed your horse. I’ve always been a fan of Westerns, both print and screen. Perhaps that comes from growing up in Texas. I drive a truck. I have a nice pair of rattlesnake skin boots. We even had a horse when I was a kid. I love riding horses. I draw the line at wearing a cowboy hat, though when I worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife, I had to as it was part of the uniform. I grew up watching old westerns on TV, mostly B movies with thin scripts and bad acting. But at least you could tell who the good guys were. They wore the white hats! Who hasn’t dreamed of galloping off into the sunset on a trusty steed with a redheaded saloon girl sitting behind you in the saddle. Okay, maybe that’s just me. Before I digress further, I will now give you my favorite western novels.
Lonesome Dove. What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said. If you want to learn how to create vivid characters, read this book. Captains Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae leap off the page and into reality. In my mind, they are real people. (Note: I see myself as being more like Augustus, but my wife insists I am like Woodrow F. Call…..something about being stubborn……). I first read the book in the late 80s, after I watched the mini-series. I think I was 10 years old or thereabouts. It is a relatively straightforward story about a journey from Texas to Montana, but three is nothing simple about the complex web of characters that populate the pages. I remember sitting in an undergraduate creative writing class and the professor asked us what we thought the greatest American novel was. I gave my opinion that it was Lonesome Dove. The professor sneered and said “Westerns aren’t literature.” I replied “Well the Pulitzer Prize committee disagrees with you.” Needless to say, my grade suffered as a result. The fact that the professor who so readily dismissed the greatness of Lonesome Dove had not published anything himself was not lost on me. If you only read one western in your life, read this book. If you only watch one western movie or television show, watch this one.
The Son is a remarkable book that follows story lines set in three eras. 1840s Texas. 1915 Texas, when Anglo ranchers fought a nasty border war with Mexican rebels. 1980s Texas, where oil reigned supreme. This book doesn’t skip over the violence, and it is full of action. It is also the best fictional description of life among the Comanche that I have ever read. You’ll learn quite a bit about their life and beliefs from this novel. The chapters that deal with the Texas/Mexico border during the Mexican Revolution shed light on a little known conflict that still affects the relationship between the United States and Mexico today. The patriarch of the family, and the driving force of the narrative, is an all around badass. It is a book that tells the history of a state, a family, and a people. As an added bonus, A&E made a television version as well which is pretty faithful to the book. I’d classify this as a must read for all Texans or those who wish they were Texans.
Ralph Compton was one of the godfathers of the western genre. His Dawn of Fury (and the subsequent sequels) are among my favorites. They are perhaps not quite as literary as the two books above, but they are action packed and a throwback to the old dime novels. The story involves a former Confederate soldier and his search for those responsible for killing his family in the waning days of the Civil War. With his trusty hound Cotton Blossom, he roams the West dishing out revenge and meeting all sorts of interesting characters, some of them historical (such as Doc Holiday). Admittedly, the books do stretch credibility a little bit, especially when the main character manages to get shot just about every third chapter and yet always manages to survive, despite living in the era before antibiotics. However, that is a small fault and does not detract from the story. The novels in this series are an immerse tale that gets you lost along the dusty trails and boom towns of the Old West.
So, partner, saddle up your horse and gallop, don’t trot, to your local library and read these books. They are perfect company on those lonely nights out on the trail. Just be careful that some low down varmint doesn’t steal them from your saddlebags!
I realize that there are many other wonderful westerns. (The Virginian, True Grit, Riders of the Purple Sage, Blood Meridian, etc) I do not mean to detract from any of them. My top three is exactly that, mine. Your mileage may vary.
Until next time, Happy Trails,
Another semester has come to a close. I haven’t had much time to blog over the past few months. I taught seven courses this semester (my contracted 5 and 2 overloads). On top of that, there were meetings, office hours, and working on revised drafts of my novel (now in the copy editing phase). Now I have a month off, and I plan to spend it playing Red Dead Redemption 2 and wrapping up my novel copy edits. I think I can manage to do both.
In other news, I moved into a new office at the college this week. When I got hired full time, there wasn’t any available office space, and so I had a cubicle. It was a nice, big cubicle, and I had it all to myself. But when they told me that I could have a real office after a professor retired, well, I leapt at the chance. I got set up yesterday, and now it resembles a museum of fire helmets. Some mine and some antique ones. Students don’t generally make use of office hours though, and I spend ten hours a week staring at the phone waiting for it to ring, or gazing at the door waiting for a student to appear. When neither happens, I wander around the office suite and pester my co-workers.
A couple of weeks ago, we (myself, my wife, and a friend) went down to Galveston for Dickens on the Strand, an annual Victorian Era festival. My friend and I donned Yankee blue for the trip. We had a lot of fun. So much fun, in fact, that my wife had to drive us home! There were lots of people dressed in Victorian clothing. We even got our picture taken with a suffragette! The food was great, as was the beer. Next year, I’m planning on going as a 19th Century firefighter.
Apologies for the short post, but the Old West beckons. I’ll see you on the trail, pilgrim. And look forward to another post within a few days about my favorite Western fiction.
Yesterday I made the drive down to Galveston for the 45th Annual Dickens on the Strand event. Growing up, my parents would take us every year, rain or shine, and some of my fondest childhood memories are of spending the day walking around The Strand and looking at all the people in Victorian Era Costumes. Later, as an adult, I would go with my late friend Robert and we would set up a table and talk to people about Civil War Galveston whilst dressed in Union Navy uniforms. (One year a group of Victorian “working girls” came up to us and said “We love seamen!”)
But I haven’t been down there since Robert passed away as I thought the memories would be too difficult for me. I decided to break my ten year long absence and sally forth to occupy the city in the name of the United States Navy, circa 1862. With me on this trip were my wife and my friend Mike. I wore my US Naval surgeon uniform and with me I had licenses to pass out to women of the town. The US military establishment during the Civil War required working girls to have a health certificate and a license to operate in occupied areas, so I was only doing my part to ensure the health and well being of our soldiers and sailors.
The weather was perfect and the crowd was one of the largest I’ve seen attend. Also, I was particularly happy to see so many young people dressed up. There were tons of pirates there (which isn’t really a Victorian thing, so I’m not sure what is up with that). I also liked all the suffragettes who wore sashes which said “Votes for Women”. A particularly attractive one even asked if she could get a picture with us, which we readily agreed to! Words do not exist to describe the all the wonderful foods available! We had lunch at a German beer garden (at my German wife’s insistence). I’ve never had sauerkraut balls before and Holy Crap they were good! And funnel cakes……how I love thee.
It was a great day and I had a ton of fun. So much fun that my wife had to drive us home….
It’s been several years since my retirement from the Fire Service, but I’m still not used to being off on holidays. For many, many years, holidays were just another work day. My Thanksgiving Break started yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon. I’m not much of a turkey eater, so I have no plans to stuff myself on Thursday. Indeed, my only real Thanksgiving tradition is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And even then I must avert my eyes whenever they show the clowns. No, Reader Mine, this Thanksgiving I will be tackling yet another round of revisions as I prepare to send my manuscript out for the copy edit. This will be my last substantive edit. The remaining ones will focus on grammar, word usage, etc.
This has made me look back and consider all the editing rounds I’ve done to see how many drafts I’ve gone through and which changes were made to each. I save each draft as a separate file, so I can actually track my own progress across the drafts. So here is what I’ve done so far (and this has stretched over many months).
Draft One: Took about a year to write. Afterwards, I put it aside for several months before giving it a full read through and marked changes, mostly to character, story, plot, etc.
Draft Two: Incorporated those changes, plus the changes my wife suggested after reading the first draft. After completing Draft Two, I again put it aside for a couple of months before giving it a fresh read to prepare a third draft, which is what would go to my content editor.
Draft Three: Most of the changes here were to language, dialogue, and cleaning up “Americanisms” as my characters are not American. In between Draft Two and Three, I also chased down some lingering research issues and incorporated that into this book. And then came the content edit!
Draft Four: This is the first draft to incorporate editorial feedback from someone other than myself or my wife. I received excellent feedback from my editor and during my first pass through the draft, I added in the suggested big picture changes which were easier to include. Then I set the book aside for a few weeks while I made copious notes based on the more detailed feedback.
Draft Five: This was probably the most substantive of all the drafts. Whole chunks were slashed or re-written. I delved deeper into the psychology of the characters, based on suggestions from the editor. This helped bring them into sharper focus, I think. Or rather, I hope. I tweaked the timeline of the book as well. I also printed out a full copy so that the next reading could be a physical one. I then let another six weeks pass before having another go.
Draft Six: My wife read Draft Five, her first reading since the original draft, and made notes on the pages. Once she was done, I gave it a read through and made my own notes. Most of the changes going into Draft Six involve fixing typos, removing redundant words or unclear/awkward phrasing. I’m trying to clean up as much as I can so to maximize the benefit of the copy edit.
So how many more drafts will there be? Two. Draft Seven will be the first round of the copy edit and Draft Eight will be the second round. By mid January, it should be submission ready. I’ve identified seven presses which accept historical fiction submissions without needing an agent. If I strike out there, I will self publish the book. But that’s still quite a ways down the road.
I’ll get there eventually. Sooner, in fact, than it appears.
To sort of piggyback off of yesterday’s post, today I shall endeavor to discuss my favorite works of Civil War fiction. Keep in mind, that all I am saying is that these are my favorites. I am not saying that they are the best. Whether or not a person likes a book or not is a personal thing. I’ve read bestsellers that I did not like and I’ve read obscure books with only a few hundred copies published that I think are, or should be, classics. My personal collection of books is well over 2,000 volumes and around 500 of them are Civil War specific, so I’ve read every standard work and a whole lot of non-standard works, fiction and non, on the subject. I shall endeavor to tell you a little bit about why I like each of the books described below and where I was in life when I read them, as that may have something to do with why I enjoy them so much.
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith was the first Civil War novel I read. The winner of the 1958 Newbery Medal was published the previous year. As I remember, I read the book when I was in third grade which would put it around 1985. This is a young adult novel and the protagonist is sixteen years old. What I enjoyed about this book is that you got to meet a large cross section of people; from Union soldiers to Cherokee Confederates, to civilians caught in the middle. Since the novel involves action in and around the Indian Territory, it covers something left out of the vast body of Civil War literature which tends to focus on things further east. I can longer recall what brought me to read Rifles for Watie. I have a vague memory of doing a book report on it, but I don’t know why I selected it. If I had to guess, it was probably a combination of the cover and the fact that it was about the Civil War.
Love and War by John Jakes. This is book two of his North and South trilogy and this is the volume that covers the actual war itself. (North and South covers the Mexican War through the Secession Crisis while Heaven and Hell covers Reconstruction.) Though to be honest, you should really read all three in order. Jakes paints on a vast canvas. Too vast, I think, for me to truly capture the essence of it. The novels provide an in depth look at the events of the day through the eyes of two families, the Hazards and the Mains. There are a few differences between the mini-series (which was good in an 80s miniseries sort of way) and the novels. But honestly, they are so significant as to detract from the story. My introduction to these books came from television. I remember when the first miniseries aired in 85 and the second in 86. My grandfather recorded them on the VCR, and I watched them quite a few times. I did not read the books until I was in high school in the early 90s. I found them at a library book sale for a quarter apiece. It was pocket change well spent. As I mentioned yesterday, this book taught me that when writing about the Civil War, try to go for the lesser told tale rather than rehashing the same things that have been written about a million times. I also learned that well written historical fiction can be as educational as it is entertaining. Finally, Jakes taught me how to write complex characters that accurately reflect the temperament and mindset of the era in which your books is set. Jakes wrote quite a few other books. I have copies of all of his historical novels and I cannot recommend them enough. He is my biggest inspiration as a writer of historical fiction.
Look Away & Until the End by Harold Coyle tell the story of two brothers separated by war and forced onto opposite sides by circumstances largely outside their control. Coyle was an Army officer and is best known for his World War Three novel Team Yankee. I read his Civil War novels when I was in high school and identified with the main characters, largely because they were of similar age to me. One common theme you might see here is that I read a lot of books in high school. I rarely read things that were assigned for a class, preferring to find my own books instead. My teachers, thankfully, largely tolerated this since I read a whole lot more than most of my classmates. Though these books do contain the usual Civil War clichés, the action sequences are well written and the characters are believable. The situation which separates the brothers and sets them down the path to end up opposing one another in the war is plausible as well. These are not dense, heavy reads. In fact, if you are a fast reader, you could probably finish one of them in a night. I would also suggest that if there is a young person in your family who likes to read, and who you would like to get interested in the Civil War, give them both of these books. They will no doubt find them interesting. Who knows, said young person might become the next great Civil War historian or novelist.
The Black Flower by Howard Bahr tells the tale of the Battle of Franklin and its aftermath. This was among the most horrendous engagements of the entire war, though it is largely forgotten outside of enthusiasts of the Western Theater. Bahr was an English professor, and this novel is, what I would classify, as a literary novel. It’s written in a way that I could never dream of doing myself. It won the WY Boyd Award for military fiction in 1998. The funny thing is that it came out around the same time as Cold Mountain. While Cold Mountain won the National Book Award and was eventually made into a movie, not to mention being mentioned on national television programs, The Black Flower got no major media coverage at all, despite being (in my opinion) a much better book. I will admit to a certain bias though. As I’ve written about before, I’ve had a reoccurring dream of the Battle of Franklin for most of my life and so I am pre-disposed to like ANY book written about the battle, fiction or non. Lastly, the one thing that I enjoyed the most about this book is that it manages to show both the horrific and the absurd, both present on Civil War battlefields. You can find the account of my recurring dream about the Battle of Franklin here.
I saved the best for last. Paradise Alley (2002) by Kevin Baker is one of the finest Civil War novels ever written, though the events on the battlefield are somewhat removed from the story itself. Instead, it tells the story of the worst instance of urban unrest in American History. It has entered our lexicon as the “New York City Draft Riots” though, as I discuss here, it was really a full scale urban insurrection. To call it a mere riot does not do it justice. It seems as if the Draft Riots are known outside of Civil War circles merely because of the movie Gangs of New York. While the movie nails the setting and costumes of 1863 Manhattan, it falls flat on the history itself. Still, some knowledge is better than no knowledge. Back to the novel. Baker does an incredible job describing the environs of lower Manhattan in the summer of 1863, along with those who inhabit it. We see a cross section of people, so the reader is exposed to various viewpoints both political and social, all accurate for the time period. His descriptions of the Great Hunger in Ireland are among the best I’ve ever read in a novel. One of the ways this book inspired me is that the author goes for all of the senses. He describes how things look, feel, and smell. (Smell often gets left out of fictional descriptions.) For this reason, it my own writing, I try and make sure the nose is duly assaulted by the odors of the past. As an Irish-American, I feel that Baker does justice to both our triumphs and our tragedies. Though discriminated against themselves, the Irish in this country could be quite racist in the 19th Century, though no more so than society at large. Paradise Alley is a book I have recommended to people time and time again. I’ll continue to do so in the future. If you’d like to read a post I wrote about the Draft Riots, you can do so here.
I am aware, Dear Readers, that I have left The Red Badge of Courage, The Killer Angels, and Gone With the Wind off the list. Yes, I have read them all. Yes, I own copies of them all. In fact, I have a first edition Gone With the Wind. These books are classics and I do not seek to diminish them in the slightest. They are simply not my favorite Civil War novels. As this list describes my favorites, those three do not make the cut. I’d be happy to hear what your favorites are, especially if they are lesser known titles. I’m always on the hunt for more things to read. In fact, I’m presently reading This Scorched Earth by William Gear. I’m enjoying it because one of the characters is a Civil War era doctor and during my time as a reenactor, I portrayed, among other things, a Civil War surgeon (both Army and Navy). His novel doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of the war either. So add that one to your list if you enjoy Civil War fiction.