Synopses & Reviews
The first biography of the little-known real-life Tom Sawyer (a friend of Mark Twain during his brief tenure as a California newspaper reporter), told through a harrowing account of Sawyer's involvement in the hunt for a serial arsonist who terrorized mid-nineteenth century San Francisco.
When 28-year-old San Francisco Daily Morning Call reporter Mark Twain met Tom Sawyer at a local bathhouse in 1863, he was seeking a subject for his first novel. As Twain steamed, played cards, and drank beer with Sawyer (a volunteer firefighter, customs inspector, and local hero responsible for having saved ninety lives at sea), he had second thoughts about Shirley Tempest, his proposed book about a local girl firefighter, and began to envision a novel of wider scope. Twain learned that a dozen years earlier the then eighteen-year-old New York-born Sawyer had been a “Torch Boy,” one of the youths who raced ahead of the volunteer firemen’s hand-drawn engines at night carrying torches to light the way, always aware that a single spark could reduce the all-wood city of San Francisco to ashes in an instant. At that time a mysterious serial arsonist known by some as “The Lightkeeper” was in the process of burning San Francisco to the ground six times in eighteen months – the most disastrous and costly series of fires ever experienced by any American metropolis.
Black Fire is the most thorough and accurate account of Sawyer’s relationship with Mark Twain and of the six devastating incendiary fires that baptized one of the modern world’s favorite cities. Set amid a scorched landscape of burning roads, melting iron warehouses, exploding buildings, and deadly gangs who extorted and ruled by fear, it includes the never-before-told stories of Sawyer’s heroism during the sinking of the steamship Independence and the crucial role Sawyer and the Torch Boys played in solving the mystery of the Lightkeeper.
Drawing on archival sources such as actual San Francisco newspaper interviews with Sawyer and the handwritten police depositions of the arrest of the Lightkeeper, bestselling author Robert Graysmith vividly portrays the gritty, corrupt, and violent world of Gold Rush-era San Francisco, overrun with gunfighters, hooligans, hordes of gold prospectors, crooked politicians, and vigilantes. By chronicling how Sawyer took it upon himself to investigate, expose, and stop the arsonist, Black Fire details – for the first time – Sawyer’s remarkable life and illustrates why Twain would later feel compelled to name his iconic character after his San Francisco buddy when he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
"In this latest from bestselling author and political cartoonist Graysmith (Zodiac), the human inspiration for one of American literature's most mischievous characters takes center stage in embryonic San Francisco. 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. Introduced some years later to a young Mark Twain, Sawyer, along with other young 'Torch Boys,' lit the way for the city's first volunteer fire companies as they made one fruitless effort after another to combat a mysterious arsonist who torched the young city to the ground six times during the years 1849-1851. While biographical details of Sawyer, his fellow firefighters, and his relationship with Twain are illuminating, it is with the historical detail in descriptions of a young, seedy, and dangerous San Francisco that the book truly shines. With such destruction, coupled with municipal greed, and incompetence, it's a wonder the city rose out of the ashes to thrive at all. 20 b&w illus. Agent: Joel Gotler, Intellectual Property Group.
Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Robert Graysmith is the New York Times bestselling author of Zodiac and eight other books. The major motion pictures Zodiac and Auto Focus are based on his books. A San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist and artist for fifteen years, he lives in San Francisco.
Table of Contents
PART I: THE MAN WHO BURNED DOWN SAN FRANCISCO: December 24, 1849-September 16, 1850
Chapter 1: Broderick and the Christmas Eve Catastrophe
Chapter 2: Sawyer
Chapter 3: Sleep Runners and Flying Houses
Chapter 4: Broderick’s Rogues
Chapter 5: Rainbow Rivers of Gold and Silver
PART II: THE LIGHTKEEPER: September 17, 1850-June 22, 1851
Chapter 6: Tug of War
Chapter 7: The Melting House
Chapter 8: The Lodger
Chapter 9: The Golden Ring
PART III: STEAMING WITH TWAIN AND SAWYER: May 26, 1863-December 16, 1866
Chapter 10: Steamers
Chapter 11: The Fire Girl
Chapter 12: Let Us Build a City
Sources and Acknowledgments