Great Chicago Fire Anniversary Coming Up

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By Helen Kossler

Reading Between the Lines

The 140th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire is coming up this October 8-10. Children of the Fire, an historical novel for children, presents the drama of this event from the perspective of eleven year old Hallelujah and the children that she meets as she wanders among the burning city. The author, Harriette Robinet, has written several award-winning books for children. She and her husband are long-time residents of Oak Park.

When I talked to Robinet about the book, she said she published it in 1991. The idea for it came to her while she was listening to a radio program that discussed the upcoming 120th anniversary of the fire.  It took her six months to research the background for the story.  These were the days before the internet made research simple, so she had to go to the Oak Park Library, the Newberry Library and the Chicago Historical Society for source material. She wanted the details to be accurate and from anything else I’ve read on the Great Fire, the author was able to incorporate many details about the fire and how people lived in the 1870’s in the Midwest into the story. By Easter of that year, she had the research done and began working on the plot for the story.  She said the plot evolved as she wrote.

The fire itself is a dramatic backdrop to the story of an orphaned black child who acutely feels the injustice of the world. “There had been fires all week prior to the Great Fire,” Robinet said. The autumn that year had been particularly dry and hot. There were strong winds that fanned the flames and the fire fighters were already tired from fighting a large fire the previous day. And of course, almost every building in Chicago was made of wood, wood that was dry from the lack of autumn rains. There was even more wood in the sidewalks and the cordwood stacked near the buildings for heat and cooking. These all added fuel to the fire.  Once the fire was burning it created a firestorm and even stone buildings, like the Courthouse burned within minutes of catching fire.

Although there were other fires in Wisconsin and Michigan at approximately the same time, due to their remoteness, they did not receive the press that Chicago did. It is said that at least 300 people died in the fire and over 100,000 were left homeless although the fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin claimed many more victims.

Hallelujah, the main character, begins the story as a rather self-centered child but through her adventures changes to a much more thoughtful and insightful person. Her mother escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad and came with Hallelujah and her sister to live in Chicago.  She died and left the girls with a hardworking couple, the LaSalles. 

Hallelujah cajoles her foster father into letting her go see the fire on that Sunday night and then, after having a fight with her foster brother, runs off alone into the city. Along the way she meets Elizabeth, who is white and whose family is much wealthier than Hallelujah’s. This gives the author a way to point out some of the differences class differences in the 1870’s starting with toys—Elizabeth has a porcelain doll but Hallelujah’s doll is of carved wood. Elizabeth’s clothes are much more elaborate than Hallelujah’s and she’s accustomed to eating much different food.

It was interesting that there was a recent review on Amazon of the book and the teacher said she was asked by her principal not to read it with her class because it contains the “n” word.  Although historically accurate, it is offensive to some. But Robinet is showing how much ethnic and racial prejudice there was at the time. Nearly everyone spoke derogatorily about other groups.

This book is full of twists and turns and the reader becomes acutely aware of just how vulnerable the entire city is, no matter how much or how little money the people had.  People lost everything they owned and often their lives as well. Hallelujah and Elizabeth end up in Lake Michigan with hundreds of other people, to try to escape the searing heat and flames. They help a man save much needed cash for the rebuilding after the fire and eventually find their ways back to their families.

An aspect of life in the 1870’s that will be surprising to modern children is that there were no telephones. People passed the news by rumor, hearsay, word of mouth and newspapers. Also, children were expected to help out, whether by hauling water or carrying wood or working and giving the money over for the good of the whole family. Hallelujah does not always feel this is just, but it was expected of all children from a young age. It fostered a send of competency, which our pampered children today often lack. 

The story is intended for middle grade students, but I found it absorbing and learned many details about the fire and the society at the same time.  There’s no more painless way to learn history than to read stories about it and I find I remember the facts a lot more clearly when they’re connected to an interesting story. 

This book won the 1991 Award from Friends of American Writers.  It’s definitely worth a read particularly with this anniversary coming up. It can be found at the Oak Park Library or at Centuries & Sleuths book store.

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