In Homeric tradition, Fire in the Water by James Alexander Thom reels us into Paddy Quinn’s story that is personal and universal.
We were last with Paddy in Mexico City on July 14, 1861 when he left us with a coda to the Irish battalion, “the Irish rogue cannoneers defending Catholic Mexico against the invading U.S. Army,” and with a letter to Alfred H. Guernsey, Editor of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine where he proposes his entrée into the new war to preserve the Union.
Permeated by the innate wisdom of someone who has felt deeply and observed widely, Fire in the Water blends the author's and protagonist voice. The quest of the book is to view the slain Abraham Lincoln in Illinois’ capital city, Springfield, follow the President to his burial, and file an intimate report with Harper’s Magazine.
It is April 19, 1865 when we catch up with Paddy Quinn in New Orleans, newly married and at the cusp of transitioning from war correspondent to a new career in public oratory. But he has this this one last fateful story to pursue. (The news of it in the South delayed for a week for strategic reasons by order of the Secretary of War.)
As with his masterful Saint Patrick’s Battalion, Thom’s keen blending of people and events brings us into another [now] forgotten incident — the explosion of the Steamboat Sultana with the resultant death of Union soldiers who survived the horrors of the Confederate Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp.
Thom diverts Quinn’s quest into three strands and it then becomes Quinn’s challenge to braid them into a cohesive story for Harper’s. Throughout, Quinn tries to figure out how to make the work of war correspondent relevant to a population far removed from the actual events. “[H]is experience in life has taught him that any success comes from knowing all one can know, and then telling it like a bard.” [p. 16]
The characters' observations are key points of reflection. From Private Robbie Macombie we learn the simple art of service and then survival. “Mister Lincoln was like Robbie’s personal saint. Just like him, grew up in Southern Indiana a woodcutter, hardscrabble farmer, one of the settler families. Most of the war, Robbie Macombie had felt like he was going through it all for Mister Lincoln, rather than for some vague big thing called the Union.” (p. 41)
Robbie becomes central to Fire in the Water when the explosion of the Sultana plummets him and Quinn into the churning Mississippi. Why they survive is at the crux.
From Quinn’s new bride, Felice we gain an understanding of what it meant to be a nurse in the Civil War and the confines of medicine at the time. But even more telling is her disdain for war photographers. Looking back we now applaud the documentation. “She doesn’t like photographs, or the obtrusive pests who take them…How they had vexed her sometimes, traipsing into the wards with written authorizations to photograph the most grotesquely maimed soldiers or leprous-looking syphilitics…Thank heaven my husband corresponded war by pen and pencil, not by camera lens.”
The slowness of the photographic process meant “it was the sketch artist who portrayed the clashing regiments, the charging cavalry, the shellbursts, the crawling casualties.” (p. 24)
The intensity of Thom’s story grows through the full-blown appeal to every sense, every emotion. Each page helps us understand war and its aftermath, greed and generosity, love and loss, loyalty and friendship. Particularly loyalty and friendship.
Fire in the Water By James Alexander Thom
Blue River Press, Indianapolis; Oct. 2015