Book/Author and Year Published: The Firebrand by Susan Wiggs (2001)

Reviewer: Bethany

Age/Genre: Period Romance, Historical Fiction

Preferred Reading Environment: On a boat or floating in a pool, surrounded by water.

Reading Accoutrements: A cooler full of ice cold beverages and a snack, like graham crackers and fruit with frosting for dip…

Content Notes: A LOT of people burn to death at the beginning of this book…Also, child abandonment (this seems to happen often in my books…)

I have a confession to make: I am afraid of fire. Honestly, if you were to ask me the way I absolutely DO NOT want to die, the answer will be “Fire” and it will probably be yelled at the top of my lungs in about point-five seconds. I absolutely hate it. So when I tell you that I picked this book up at a thrift store a while ago because I’d already read one of the other books in Susan Wiggs’s Chicago Fire Trilogy, you should know that reading the second book was a complete accident. The Mistress (book 2 in the trilogy) is about a maid pretending to be rich and falling in love with a guy way above her class…and it happens to take place the night of the Chicago fire of 1871. I had no idea that the fire played a part in the plot when I bought it. The book was really good once I got passed the scary fire parts, so it was my intention to read the rest of the books but I also needed some space because I. Am. Afraid. Of. Fire.

Anyway, I actually distanced myself a little too much from the book and forgot about the series altogether until I found The Firebrand at a thrift store awhile ago. Now that I’ve read two out of the three books, I’m going to have to bite the bullet and hunt down the third one…But you’re not here for my life story, you’re here for the review!

The Firebrand follows Lucy Hathaway of Chicago; the heiress daughter of a civil war hero, Lucy has strong convictions about the rights of women in the US. Lucy’s mother enrolled her in finishing school in order to try to polish the rebelliousness out of her…and hopefully get her to settle for a marriage with a suitable gentleman before she became a spinster. Her finishing school sent her and a few of her classmates to a lecture against suffrage where she met Randolph Higgins. When the lecturer finally made Lucy snap and she instigated a public debate, Rand was the one to argue with her…and surprisingly, Lucy didn’t mind that his opinion opposed hers. She enjoyed debating with him. She thought he was very handsome. She felt attracted to a man for the first time in her life. So, Lucy propositioned him. Unfortunately, that was when Rand’s wife appeared.

Later that night, as the girls headed back to the finishing school, they found themselves in the middle of a raging inferno where Chicago once stood. The girls were separated as they made their way through the streets, running from the burning city, and soon Lucy was standing on the street near a burning hotel trying to decide where to go. She looked up in time to see a woman throw something from a window above. Lucy caught the bundle and headed to the river where she discovered not a pet or valuables as she had thought, but a baby.

Five years later, Lucy walked into a bank to ask for an extension on the loan for her new business. After losing her father in the Great Fire of 1871, Lucy and her mother discovered that he had left them destitute. The women sold all of their belongings and lived in the emergency housing provided after the fire until Lucy found a way that she could support their family – Lucy, her mother (Viola), and the baby she had rescued from the fire – she opened a bookshop called The Firebrand. The bookstore also served as a place where women could learn to read, could congregate to discuss suffrage, and could educate themselves on their rights. Unfortunately, the bookstore had yet to turn a profit and the bank was pulling the loan.

She was surprised to discover that Randolph Higgins was the man she needed to convince to keep her bookstore in operation. She was even more surprised to learn that that little girl Lucy had rescued from the fire, the girl she had been raising as her own for the past five years, was actually Rand’s daughter. The two were stuck together trying to figure out the best course of action for their daughter.

As you can probably guess, I spent the first 60 or so pages of this book – the ones where Lucy is running through the streets of Chicago from the fire – curled up in a big old ball of stress and tight shoulders. I know very little about the fire that ravaged Chicago in 1871, but the description of people making their way through the streets seemed realistic. I definitely wouldn’t have handled that situation well at all and I am super glad that all I had to do was read about it…and it was really only the first 60 pages that had anything to do with the Chicago fire.

The rest of the book mostly focuses on the women’s suffrage movement, as Lucy and her friends are active members. Lucy was even arrested once for voting in an election. She is passionate about her cause and about helping other women to elevate themselves beyond what the men in their lives have scripted for them. Her focus on the cause has a tendency to color her view of what is happening around her. For example, when Lucy’s father died, she and Viola had no idea about the state of their finances or how to go about learning anything about their accounts. They were helpless and because of that they were taken advantage of. Lucy firmly believes that if her father hadn’t willfully kept his wife and daughter in ignorance of their situation, they would have been better off. For that reason, Lucy believes that the institution of marriage is harmful to women – because traditionally, married women are subject to the whims of their husbands. She openly believes in “free love,” which horrifies the traditionalists in town to no end.

At one point, Viola calls Lucy out for her single-minded hatred of the institution of marriage, saying that Lucy can be judgmental of the women who choose such a traditional lifestyle for themselves.This was one place where I firmly disagreed with the characters’ assessment of the situation. Lucy had many married customers in her shop. Some of them were abused women who came in secret to learn to read. Some of them had husbands who recognized that keeping the woman they cared about happy was more important than being traditional or conforming to societal expectations. She did not have customers who were happy in strictly traditional marriages. Yet, Lucy still recognized that her mother had been happy in her own traditional marriage. She also saw how that traditional lifestyle had made things more difficult for her mother and made the decision not to choose that life for herself.

Rand, on the other hand, was a staunch traditionalist. He had been abandoned by his mother at a young age and his wife divorced him after the fire that had supposedly killed their only child. He believed that a woman’s place was in the home, taking care of her children and tending to her husband’s needs. Any other sentiment from a woman was the reason unhappiness came to the household. His job at the bank – where he worked for a board full of other staunchly traditional old white men – only served to reconfirm his values. Women like Lucy were the reason his mother and his wife left him and he hated that she fought for suffrage – even as he appreciated her passion and loved to debate with her. He actually respects Lucy, despite his conviction that she is wrong, which was a pleasant surprise for me. The two clash spectacularly and I really enjoyed their bickering all the way to the end of the book. 

This book uses real events to show some history. It gave me a new perspective on the massive fire that destroyed Chicago, but it also provided me with a deeper understanding of the history of the women’s suffrage movement. This book took place in the 1870s, almost 50 years before women were granted the right to vote in the United States. I actually found myself doing that math and getting really upset that Lucy never would have been able to enjoy the rights that she fought so hard for. Firebrand also offers several really great examples of how trauma impacts individuals differently and how individuals can interact with people who don’t share their views. It had a lot to offer and I don’t regret reading it at all – even if it scared me a bit at the beginning.

Have you ever read a book centered around your biggest fear? Tell me about it in the comments!

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