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.