. . . part of Chicago's Living History"
— Foreword Reviews, Winter 2016
Fire Angels is a riveting novel of the true life events surrounding the Our Lady of the Angels school fire in 1958 Chicago.
Three weeks before Christmas, on December 1, 1958, one of the deadliest fires in American history broke out at Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago, claiming the lives of ninety-two children and three nuns. Fire Angels is a fictional account of that fire. It’s a story of arson; of bravery by parents, nuns, firefighters, and medical professionals who come to the rescue; of a falsely accused janitor; of a cover-up within the Catholic Church; of a judge who, in having to determine the juvenile arsonist’s fate, is torn between loyalty to his church and justice; of a tight-knit community changed forever; and of a romance between two survivors who fall in love. Fire is a central character in this story, a cunning observer that comes to life whenever a flame is lit.
And the story begins . . .
There was this fat-faced kid who loved me. Not the normal attraction a kid has when he sees me in the flick of a match or in a candle on a birthday cake. This kid loved me too much. I saw worship in his watery blue eyes.
We met in church. (Isn't that where they say lovers often meet?) It was at Our Lady of the Angels, a modest redbrick church attached to a redbrick grade school and rectory in a tree-lined neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side.
The kid was five when I first spotted him among the many adoring faces from my place in a golden candelabrum on the altar. He was sitting on the edge of his pew in the fourth row center of the vast church, squeezed between his cutie-pie mother, Belinda, and his wrinkled great-grandma, Filippa. He was a chubby blond kid, his feet didn't even touch the kneeler, and he looked like a bear cub in his puffy quilted jacket with a scruffy collar.
You know how it is when someone's staring at you. You feel it, and eventually your eyes find them. That's how it was with the kid and me. For my part, I can't say it was love at first sight—I'm fickle when it comes to matters of the heart, because my desire has been snuffed out too many times by buckets of water, blankets, and high-power hoses. But I was interested and I pursued it.
That evening a procession was going on in church. Catholics had a lot of processions in those days—they paraded inside and around their churches like Shriners marching down State Street, with additional zealousness but without the camels. Catholics had processions for everything: feast days, holy days, holidays, novenas, baptisms, weddings, ordinations, canonizations, saints' days, Communions, confirmations, funerals. They just kept circling around with piety and circumstance, singing their songs, carrying their statues, hoisting their sparkly banners. I couldn't keep track of all their hoopla, still can't, even though I'm part of every one of their processions. I'm Fire, of course, and I'm essential to their rituals. I'm a showman, a trickster, a master of ambiance. I can make Saint Peter's in the Vatican glitter like heaven on its finest day. I can make the most humble chapel twinkle like the windows of Marshall Field's at Christmas. I can soften the hardest heart. I can make the most jaded soul feel passion, even compassion. I can make the guiltiest sinner feel as saintly as the pope.
It was a January evening when the kid and I met. . . .
Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth Kern. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.