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Fire on the Prairie: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race Hardcover – March, 1992

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 442 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Co; 1st edition (March 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805014683
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805014686
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #854,649 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The first black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, who died in office in ok? 1987, welded a multiracial coalition that replaced the corrupt political machine put in place by ex-mayor Richard Daley during his 21-year tenure. Washington's embattled administration was, in the author's judgment, "a grand experiment with national ramifications," an assessment not entirely borne out by the facts in this engrossing behind-the-scenes account of the mayor's narrow electoral victory in 1983, the racial backlash his rule inspired and the rancorous City Council wars that deadlocked his reforms and almost subverted his program. Rivlin, who covered local politics for the Chicago Reader , blasts the press for stereotyping Washington as "racially polarizing" and for insinuating that his coalition was rotten. The book witheringly portrays Jesse Jackson as an ultra-ambitious, cunning opportunist who claimed undue credit for Washington's election. Rivlin's corrective critique provides a much-needed perspective on Chicago's racially divisive politics.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Rivlin, a journalist at the Chicago Reader during the Washington administration, presents a history and commentary on black participation in Chicago politics. Beginning with the irony of Chicago's founder and first resident, a black trapper, he chronicles the conflict between white machine bosses and the growing black community. The details of personality and politics are remarkable and, as such, Rivlin's book is a valuable account of conflicts within the black community and among leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Lu Palmer, and William Dawson, as well as between black and white. This view of Chicago politics is invaluable and a very readable contribution to the literature on the Washington years. It provides a nice counterbalance to the memoirs of Washington's supporters in Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods , edited by Pierre Clavel and Wim Wiewel ( LJ 12/91) and will be of interest to urban specialists and lay readers.
- William L. Waugh Jr., Georgia State Univ., Atlanta
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By John B. Maggiore on March 5, 2003
Format: Paperback
FIRE ON THE PRAIRE is a good example of why the American reading public's narrow focus on national politics is so unfortunate. There are thousands of political stories in the cities, counties and states of America that are never told because the presumed target audience is too small. Thankfully, Gary Rivlin decided to tell the story of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor.
The book will appeal to anyone interested in politics, even if Chicago is of no particular interest. City-level politics is politics at its most raw. This story, set in the 1980's, features (literally) brawling aldermen, overtly race-based electoral appeals, bribery, graft and other interesting forms of corruption, and the more creative bad-mouthing that we'll likely ever hear on the national stage. The cast of characters - real political figures - read like they walked out of central casting. The impervious, heroic Mayor Washington, the nefarious but canny Ed Vrdolyak, the bumbling Jane Byrne, the barbaric Ed Burke, the big-talking con man Clarence McClaine, the ego-maniacal Jesse Jackson and on and on.
An unusual feature of this book is that while Washington is the central character, the book is almost not about him so much as Chicago politics in the 1980s. A third of the book devotees equal time to Washington and his arch-nemesis, Vrdolyak. Indeed, the Vrdolyak is painted with greater depth and may actually be quoted more than Washington. Washington comes off as pretty much impervious to corruption, pettiness, and most of the regular dynamics of Chicago politics - but he also comes off as inaccessible. The book plunges immediately into the political story without the customary 80 pages devoted to the central subject's early life. Rivlin never writes, "Washington thought...
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Paul Igasaki on March 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Gary Rivlin is a great writer. And he lived through the exciting times he's writing about in Fire on the Prairie.

I was a Chicagoan, a convert to the Washington Movement and a friend and a source for Gary's coverage of City Hall at the time. He never pretended to be objective, but he ended up telling about the complexity of what was going on better than anyone at the time because of it. We attended Harold's funeral together - he understood what it meant for me, someone who grew up feeling that the Chicago system would always keep me out, when someone opened it up.

This book is a great story. It won't bore people who aren't political junkies. He goes way beyond the Harold vs. Eddie Vrdolyak personality conflict that the mainstream media dwelled on. He doesn't dwell on everything, but he shows it was more than just a Black-White conflict, though it was that. It was also about people excluded banding together and prying open a closed system. It was about a coalition that brought Chicago into the 20th century just before the beginning of the 21st. It was about Latinos moving from the margins to the balance of political power in one of the continent's largest cities. It was about Asian Americans, Native Americans, the poor, refugees, community organizers and others becoming part of a process.

The personalities, the feelings and the environment of a city going through tremendous change are laid out in this book. While written long before 2008, even reading this now, you can picture a young African American organizer who began to see politics as something that wasn't beyond his grasp, who was excited by change that some thought would never come. This isn't just about Harold Washington in 1987. It is also about each of us, including the current President of the United States and the current Mayor of Chicago, who were changed and then made change in a new world of possibilities.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By F. Ospina on July 24, 2009
Format: Paperback
I was not disappointed in this book at all. I heard about it on 'This American Life' and the story piqued my interest. It's the story of an underdog managing to challenge the system of Chicago politics in an unprecedented manner. Harold Washington was someone with incredible political skill and he used it in order to attempt to change things for the better despite the status quo attempting to stand firm against him. It shows that Hope and politics can sometimes coexist to create positive changes.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Humanist on September 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
An excellent book about the late, beloved mayor but the author apparently wasn't aware of the huge importance of Chicago's 7 African-American radio stations, so important to a community that values oral culture much more than do white folks. Even WVON doesn't get a look in. Mayor Washington visited those stations, often once a week, to take phone calls from real people who were not going to let him wriggle off the hook about an issue, even though they adored him. But Harold wasn't afraid to get grilled by listeners on the blindingly white WBBM-AM, the CBS station there, for he stepped up to the microphone about once a month. No mention is made of the Harold Washington tribute LP "Keep the Dream Alive" (Ecobert Music ECO 269). Many of these broadcasts are archived at the Amistad Research Center, in New Orleans, the British Library Sound Archive, and were donated to the Harold Washington Public Library as well.
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More About the Author

I'll confess that in high school I was the type more likely to read the Cliff Notes than the assigned work. I was going to be an engineer; who cared about books? But for a requirement in college I took a literature course and I've been grateful ever since. I joke that I'm a self-taught reader, having pretty much started at age 19.

Politics and social issues propelled me into journalism. I felt like I had something to say so I started to write. In college I always enjoyed reading a great alternative weekly, the Chicago Reader. I began contributing to the Reader and eventually earned a staff job there writing about Chicago politics. That led to my first book, Fire on the Prairie, in which I tell the story of race politics at work in every big city by telling the tale of Chicago during the 1980s, a particularly brutal racial time in that city's history.

Youth violence was the subject of my second book, Drive-By. In that work, I introduce readers to the range of characters and issues at work in a single drive-by shooting that left a 13-year-old dead and put three teenagers in prison for murder. With my third book, The Plot to Get Bill Gates, I returned to my early tech roots.

I left the book world for about a decade. I started writing for a range of magazines, from Wired to the New York Times Magazine to GQ. At the start of 2004, I took a staff position with The New York Times. As terrific experience as that was, I'm very happy to be returning to books and talking about my latest work, BROKE, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. - How the Working Poor Became Big Business.