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Black Fire: The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer--and of the Mysterious Fires That Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 30, 2012


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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Six. That’s how many city-destroying fires ravaged San Francisco in 18 months, and each one is shown in its roaring glory in Black Fire. Mark Twain fanatics and firefighter-history buffs alike will flock to the tale of the real-life Tom Sawyer’s adventures fighting fires in the Gold Rush–era city, depicted in remarkable detail by Graysmith, former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist. The core of the book, about an arsonist who stalked the bustling streets of the sloppily built city, takes place years before Twain arrives on the scene and spins yarns with Sawyer, often while they sit in steam rooms. This is a comprehensive look at Sawyer’s world, replete with roguish volunteer firefighters, tricky politicians, street brawlers, and vigilantes. The muscular depictions of these larger-than-life characters are brought to swaggering life using words straight from their mouths based on historical materials. Black Fire captures the spirit of rugged adventure so beloved in Twain’s work and so characteristic of the undaunted city built—time and time again—on the hopes of fortune-hunters. --Bridget Thoreson

Review

“A wild and woolly tale of Gold Rush times….Graysmith conjures up a city of fire, gold, glory and ignominy, along with larger-than-life citizens, adding a valuable chapter to San Francisco's already rich history and legend….[A] darkly menacing, brightly illuminated slice of the city's fiery history.” – San Francisco Chronicle

“Graysmith has amassed an impressive amount of historical detail….A well-researched work about community and fire.” – Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The journalist delved deep into archival material to find the connection between Mark Twain and a heroic San Francisco firefighter named Tom Sawyer, who became the model for one of Twain's most beloved characters.” – Sacramento Bee

“Packing a whirlwind of events around dizzying details of boggy, impassable streets choked with decaying refuse, characters of all manner of disrepute, throughout a booming city haphazardly constructed of highly flammable material, Graysmith (who also drew the book's illustrations) inserts a teenage Tom Sawyer, newly migrated from the east, into one of the most tumultuous periods in San Francisco's storied history….While biographical details of Sawyer, his fellow firefighters, and his relationship with Twain are illuminating, it is with the historical detail in descriptions of a young, seedy, and dangerous San Francisco that the book truly shines.”
Publishers Weekly

“Mark Twain fanatics and firefighter-history buffs alike will flock to the tale of the real-life Tom Sawyer’s adventures fighting fires in the Gold Rush–era city, depicted in remarkable detail by Graysmith….Black Fire captures the spirit of rugged adventure so beloved in Twain’s work and so characteristic of the undaunted city built—time and time again—on the hopes of fortune-hunters.” – Booklist

“Rich….lively and chock-full of eye-opening tidbits” – Kirkus Reviews
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030772056X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307720566
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #535,216 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I have read other books he has written and look forward to more.
J. C. Whitaker
As a history book, it includes too many inane details and repeats itself, bogging down the narrative.
Brian J. Cipperly
Excellent for the well researched history of the times and the characters.
Mary Curren

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Donald D. Fraser on November 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Unless one is familiar with "downtown" San Francisco, including the now posh South of Market, one should study the maps provided in the book. Otherwise, one can get lost in the maze of Gold Rush and Civil War - era San Francisco.

There is some relatively brief information about Mark Twain and his association with the firefighter Tom Sawyer. However, a direct connection with the boy hero of Mark Twain's book is not proven. It seems "Tom Sawyer" might have been at most a name from Twain's past. The San Francisco real-life Tom Sawyer has little or no resemblance to the fictional boy in pre-Civil War Missouri. In fact, the author quotes Mark Twain asserting that the names are of two different persons. The real life Tom Sawyer seems to have made the connection himself.

The book would have benefited from citations, since it is otherwise difficult to determine if this book is fiction, non-fiction or a combination thereof.

It is a fast-paced, almost breathless narrative and a contribution to the study of the always enigmatic Samuel Clemens. Sometimes the narrative jumps around a lot. But, then, it may have been the author's intention, as if to situate the reader in a very jumpy time in one of the world's most delightful cities.

I gave it 5 stars because I enjoyed the read. It could have been better edited. I did not like the illustrations. They seemed cartoonish. If that is a word.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Brian J. Cipperly on August 31, 2013
Format: Hardcover
In his book "Black Fire," Graysmith describes the streets of mid-1800s San Francisco as muddy quagmires that slowed the progress of man and machine in their efforts to get to fires or merely walk about the city. Unfortunately, this description also fits the writing style of this book. As a history book, it includes too many inane details and repeats itself, bogging down the narrative. As a novel, it switches perspectives too often and lacks any sort of flow. It's generally filled with redundant tangents and strange non-sequiturs, almost as if no one proofread it before it went to print.

I did feel like I learned a few things, but not as much as I expected (especially about Tom Sawyer--the book is mostly about San Francisco and 1800s firefighting/politics), and it was relief more than satisfaction that I felt as I turned the last page. Graysmith obviously did his research, but it's apparent that he had to fill in too many of the blanks himself, and never really had enough material to fill 250 pages and make it interesting. If I could have given 2.5 stars I would have, the extra half-star being for the uniqueness of the subject matter more than anything else.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Sturm on April 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It's probably the most detailed and rich description of San Francisco during the Gold Rush that I've seen. The description of the fires and the characters that populate the town are amazing and bring the 1850s to life.

I love that Graysmith has invested so much energy in investigating the relationship between Twain and Sawyer and that part of the book is great. Generally, all the characters in the book are jumping off the pages with all the rich detail given to them. The story of Lillie Coit (nee Hitchcock) is quite remarkable and well told.

The only weakness that stops me from giving it 5 stars is that it could have used a little bit of trimming in its descriptions of the fire engines and the habits of the fire fighters. There was quite some repetition which was not helped by the fact that there are half a dozen major fires in a very short time span - the descriptions of the fire engines start to blur together a bit.

Other than that, if you wan to learn what San Francisco was like during the 1850s, look no further. This is the book to buy!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Peter Overland on December 19, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have really enjoyed this book. The descriptions of Gold-Rush era California (and all of the back stories of the characters) are interesting and entertaining. The only reason I didn't give it five stars is that there are some thematic repetitions and redundancies that seem to have lost the benefit of a careful editor. But otherwise, wow, what a triumph of journalism and historical writing.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By J. C. Whitaker on March 31, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I like this authors work. I have read other books he has written and look forward to more. This particular book is highly detailed in relating life in that era. The mud, the relationship between firemen and firehouses are all well described and make an interesting background to the central story. The author has taken a small detail of California history and built a whole local scene around it without resorting to overblown dramatics.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Rodney L Cook on January 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover
The is a good story here, filled with interesting history and characters. However the book is a disaster due to terrible editing. There are a number of repeats, sentences that never end, sequences out of place and odd notes inserted where they are no sense.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Carol Becker on May 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Wow, I didn't expect this book to be that great. The CD was beautifully voiced, clear and precise in sound. It was almost like listening to an old timer sitting by the proverbial country store stove weaving stories of past encounters. Its history was so intertwined with the story that it all just springs to life right out of the CD. Well documented and surely should be a must read for those loving the history of San Francisco and it's colorful gold rush inhabitants in that moment in time.
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