SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE – Libby Fischer Hellmann

It isn’t possible to explain to people who weren’t young on November 22, 1963 how much the world changed with the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Even the attacks on 9/11 did not unify the country as did the death of the president.  He was killed in the early afternoon on a Friday.  From Friday evening until Monday afternoon, when the funeral ended, businesses shut down, government offices closed, stores cut their business hours, and the people went to church or synagogue to pray for their country. And then the nation watched television.  It is true that I was one of millions who saw a murder live on TV.  My brother and I were watching the coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald being transferred from the jail to a police van, when Jack Ruby walked up and shot him.  I can remember by brother saying, “That was pretend.  It had to be pretend.”

Libby Fischer Hellmann centers SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE on six people who came together to try to change the path they saw as destroying the United States.  JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Robert Kennedy whipped up enthusiasm in young adults by convincing them they could change the world.  When MLK and RFK were assassinated, there wasn’t anyone to step into their shoes and keep the the dreams alive.  Instead, the focus was the war in Vietnam and the “military-industrial complex.”  Dar, Rain, Alix, Teddy, Casey, and Peyton shared a vision until they didn’t and for two of the group, their association would lead to tragedy.

The author bookends the story of the group in the sixties with their separate stories forty years later.  SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE is a page-turner.  From the first paragraph the reader is drawn in, wanting to know everything there is to know about the characters.  How did they come to live together?  How did they drift so far apart?

The author creates the atmosphere of the sixties perfectly.  The chaos and damage done at the 1968 Democratic convention led to the election of Richard Nixon and Richard Nixon led to Watergate and the greatest threat to the judicial system faced by this country.

But the reality of the characters in the book is as foreign to me as it would be to my children.  My kids were appalled that I had not been at Woodstock.  I explained I was working two jobs to pay my tuition.  I had to confess that all my friends were equally boring.  The characters represent that small group of twenty somethings that had the time, and the courage, to embark on a campaign to turn the United States inside out.

What makes the book so very good is that the author doesn’t allow the characters to stay forever young.  Growing old and growing up are not necessarily the same thing but for most, like Dar, Rain, Alix, Teddy, Casey, and Peyton, growing up meant taking on the responsibilities against which they had raged.

The book exists perfectly in both time frames because the choices made by the characters when they were just entering into adulthood, come back to haunt them and hunt them.  The sins of the fathers, and the mothers, bring wrath down upon the succeeding generations.

This is a terrific book for those who want to relive those times when we thought we could do anything.  For the generation we brought into the world, it is a lesson in the how the best of intentions can be thwarted by the usual sins of greed, pride, and dishonesty.

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9 Responses to SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE – Libby Fischer Hellmann

  1. Lisa Privitera says:

    This is one of the best books i have ever read.

  2. kathy d. says:

    I should read this. I was in Chicago (drove there with friends) in 1968, saw the result of the police attack on peaceful protesters sitting in Lincolm Park, drove my parents’ car away as police were pulling people out of cars and beating them up. My car made it through, thankfully.
    I tried to go to Woodstock. The car I was in couldn’t get anywhere near it, and we spent the night in a hot, mosquito-ridden motel miles away.
    Yes. We had hope. I still do. It’s a tough period. I am heartened by the heroes and other good people who ran to help Rep. Giffords, and those who worked with her and others in Arizona despite the horrendous hostility going on and aimed at her, immigrants and even liberals.

  3. Beth says:

    Lisa, I agree. It is a very good book.

    Kathy, I think that you will be glad when you read this book to have that summer brought to life so clearly. It was a period of extremes that I hope the country doesn’t experience again. On the page and in the movies, it seems romantic to take on the government and live in communes but in reality it came down to murder.

    Katherine Power was a student at Brandais University, just outside Boston. She and another student, Susan Saxe, got involved with a group who wanted to end the war by bringing down the government. To help the cause, they and two men who were ex-convicts, robbed a bank. The first officer on the scene was Walter Schroeder. He had a pistol; the robbers had handguns, a shotgun, and a sub-machine gun. One of the men shoe Schroeder in the back. He died. His daughter was a high school classmate of my sister’s. His funeral cortege passed the school on the way to the church for his funeral. None of the girls, many of them grandmothers now, forget what it was like when a classmates father is killed in the line of duty.

    Romantic it was not. Katherine Power disappeared after the shooting. She turned herself in in 1993. She was in prison until 1999;,six years for participating in killing a police officer. One of the requirements imposed was that she could not benefit financially from her story. “Law & Order” presented an episode based on Katherine Power.

  4. kathy d. says:

    I’m talking about peaceful protests, people in Lincoln Park in Chicago who were beaten up, many badly, many bandaged the day after, people outside the Democratic Convention who wanted peace, who were peaceful. I saw this. I saw people attacked for no reason in Old Town near Lincoln Park. My car narrowly escaped.
    I’m talking about peaceful protests against the Vietnam War and the draft, all of it constitutionally-protected activities.
    And also the Civil Rights Movement, which was peaceful and followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s precepts of non-violence.
    There was a lot of violence directed against the Civil Rights Movement, as is evidenced in the murder of Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, Viola Liuzzi and many others. These were all peaceful people, who acted as they believed.
    What I am worried about now is that the country is polarized, that what’s happened in Arizona–and Gabrielle Giffords was the target of prior attacks, her office vandalized, threats against her constantly, a map with crosshairs on her district and that of others, with their names–will continue there and occur elsewhere.
    I look at the good people who helped her and others, who went to the Memorial on Wednesday, 27,000 people, who sympathized nationally, who do not want to see division, vitriol and violence.

  5. kathy d. says:

    Sorry, what I should have said above after reading the prior post is that the vast majority of people who protested the Vietnam war and were in or supported the Civil Rights Movement were nothing like that. Really. My family, my friends, students whom I knew, many, many more were nothing like that.

    • Libby says:

      Kathy d:

      I understand exactly what you’re saying. That is part of the reason I wrote the book. One can hope that we learn from history, but it’s never guaranteed, is it? The people I wrote about in the book started out expressing their first Ammendment rights in a constitutionally supported way, but the opposition to that expression made some of them adopt different tactics… as did their opposition. I hope that comes through in the book.

      Beth, thank you for your thoughtful review. You really “got” it. I’m honored.

      • Beth says:

        The sixties were certainly a time of change. Part of that, I think, came from the number of people who were able to go to college. Like-minded people had a place to gather, to plan, to take action. Other generations, if they finished high school, went to work when they were 18; that atmosphere wasn’t conducive to forming political action groups.

        Idealistic people can be easily manipulated, too, and I think that happened sometimes. The weathermen were dedicated to radical change by whatever means necessary.

        I grew up hearing stories about the treatment of blacks in the south. One of my uncles was a priest for fifty years, all of them spent in either Washington, DC or New Orleans. We weren’t supposed to be listening but the adults knew we did. My uncle was very active in the New Orleans diocese as the churches were integrated.

        The anti-war movement was motivated by idealism. The movement against integration was motivated by hate.

        It is really a fantastic book, Libby.

  6. kathy d. says:

    Yes, I hear you and thank you for answering my pos
    There was later frustration among a few, but they were a small number relative to those peacefully protesting the war, the draft and Southern segregration, Jim Crow and denial of basic rights. I was in D.C. in 1963 to hear Dr. King, with my family, and in D.C. at the end of the 60s when nearly a million were there to protest the Vietnam war; in fact, in those days people gave flowers to soldiers who were there.
    And, also, I remember the troops killing innocent youth at Kent State and Jackson State. Their peaceful gatherings are shown in photos of the events.
    I’m sure your book is good and exciting. I’ve been meaning to read your series for awhile, particularly what is set in Chicago, as I grew up in Hyde Park and loved living there.

  7. Pingback: AUTHORS E – H (A Long List) | MURDER by TYPE

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