Set the Night on Fire by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Set the Night on Fire by Libby Fischer HellmannReviewed by Caryn St. Clair

The saying “the sins of the father are visited on his children” could be the subtitle of author Hellmann’s latest book, Set the Night on Fire. The book is neatly divided into three parts starting and ending in the present day with the middle taking readers back to the ever so volatile summer and fall of 1968 in Chicago.

The story opens with Dar Gantner’s return to Chicago after his release from prison. He begins to make contact with the five other people that he had lived and worked with back in 1968. At the same time, Lila Hilliard has also returned to Chicago to spend the holidays with her father Casey and twin brother Daniel. Lila does not know Dar, and so she does not have any forewarning that his connection to her family is about to radically change her life forever.

In 1968, when the Democratic Convention came to Chicago, so did a wide assortment of young people from across the country. Some came to demonstrate against the war in Viet Nam and some came with idealistic dreams for a better society. Some came to destroy our political government and some to start a near utopist society. Some were angry Blacks wanting equality; some were white rich kids from the suburbs disgusted with the materialistic lifestyle of their families. But the one thing they had in common was they all came, which made for some very interesting, if unusual, bedfellows. The plot of this novel revolves around six people who lived in an apartment in Old Town. Ted was a judge’s son from Madison, Wisconsin. Rain was also from Madison and had attended high school with Ted. Alix, from Indiana, was the daughter of a department store owner and was probably the least political person in the household. Though Casey Hilliard was from the North Shore of Chicago, he had met Dar at the University of Michigan. They had both been involved in the student demonstrations there and came specifically to protest the war at the Democratic Convention. They soon met Payton who had come in from the University of Iowa for the same purpose. All six ended up “crashing” in the same apartment and over time, became a sort of family.

Over time things started falling apart and some moved on to other things. Though they were not all living together, one event involving four of them changed all of their lives forever. That event left one of them dead, Dar in jail and all of them with secrets to keep buried.

This book is an interesting look back at one of the most turbulent times in our country’s history. I found it easy to assign people from my past to nearly every character in the book. I suspect many readers will as well. While for the most part the characters are not ones I’d identify with or even like, their story is so compelling it was nearly impossible to put the book down until I was finished.

Set the Night on Fire is probably Hellmann’s best work yet. She drew from people she knew, placed them front and center in historical events the entire country remembers, during a time in history that defines a certain generation of Americans.

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