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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 Paperback – October 29, 2013
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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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"A harrowing account of Sawyer's involvement in the hunt for a serial arsonist who terrorized mid-nineteenth century San Francisco." —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
"Fascinating." —San Jose Mercury News
"A sizzling tale...[Graysmith] uncovers Mark Twain's friendship with the real-life Sawyer — a colorful figure in the city's early firefighting culture — and paints a detailed portrait of San Francisco, circa 1849-1866. It's jam-packed with notable residents whose long-ago importance lingers in the city's street names (Broderick, Brannan) — plus mustachioed hooligans and "The Lightkeeper," an arsonist as mysterious as he was destructive." —San Francisco Bay Guardian
“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
"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... the book truly shines." —Publishers Weekly
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Top customer reviews
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!
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.