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Black Fire    by Robert Graysmith order for
Black Fire
by Robert Graysmith
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2012 (2012)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

Fire was a constant danger in the settlements that sprang up in California during the Gold Rush period but never was it as great a threat as it was to San Francisco in the 1800s. Because of the wooden structures, lack of firefighting equipment, and a haphazard water supply, once a fire started it would be fanned by the winds coming off the bay and within minutes become a raging conflagration that could destroy block upon block of the city.

In Black Fire, Robert Graysmith focuses on a period in the city's early history when a mysterious serial arsonist known as The Lightkeeper set San Francisco ablaze six times over a period of eighteen months.

In a city as easy to rebuild as it was to burn down, the merchants and residents quickly resurrected the torched areas each time the arsonist struck.

In this captivating tale Graysmith reconstructs the period, introduces some of the key personages who played roles in San Francisco's volunteer fire companies, and discusses the measures taken to bring The Lightkeeper to justice.

You'll meet wealthy politicians and businessmen such as David C. Broderick and Sam Brannan, rogues and brawlers like Billy Mulligan, James 'Yankee' Sullivan and Dutch Charley Duane, plus the fire companies' darling, Eliza 'Lillie' Hitchcock.

Of course, the real Tom Sawyer plays a pivotal role in the story as does Mark Twain and, to a lesser degree, fellow writer Bret Harte.

It is estimated that in the six fires between December 24, 1849, and June 22, 1851, San Francisco lost three thousand structures with a loss of $25 million of uninsured real estate and $44 million of personal valuables.

The bulk of this book is devoted to these fires and the men, including Tom Sawyer, who fought them. Only a small portion of the narrative addresses Mark Twain and his friendship with Sawyer. The reader will discover that many people, including Sawyer himself, believe this San Franciscan did lend his name to Twain's famous, fictional character, but don't expect a lengthy discussion concerning the antecedents of the literary Tom Sawyer.

Likewise, you'll learn a bit about Twain's days residing in San Francisco, but keep in mind this is just a small interlude in the author's lengthy life. You'll probably learn more by reading Twain's Roughing It, the account of his life in Nevada, California and a brief trip to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

If you want to learn more about the rough and tumble, chaotic days of San Francisco in the mid-nineteenth century, by all means read this book; you'll enjoy it.

But, on the other hand, if you expect to discover new insights into Mark Twain and his creation of the character of Tom Sawyer, don't waste your time!

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