Into the Whirlwind
Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was falsely accused of starting the Great Chicago Fire. While it is accurate that the fire started in the O’Leary’s barn, no one is quite sure how. What is known is that hundreds died in the flames which claimed 3.3 square miles of the city. Into the Whirlwind takes this terrible tragedy and brings it to life through scintillating characters.
Mollie Knox is the owner of a rather unusual firm called The Illinois 57th Watch Company. The company is so named not because it is Chicago’s fifty-seventh business making watches but because it employs many of the men from her father’s Civil War unit, the 57th Illinois Infantry. The regiment had met its end backed against a cliff during a three day shootout that had left the majority of the men dead, crippled or maimed. But not unemployed. Mollie’s father had given jobs to all he could, from the blind lawyer to the shell shocked silver polisher. For Mollie, running a company doesn’t mean just keeping a business afloat, it means providing a livelihood for those who would not be able to get one elsewhere. It is a large responsibility and what little peace she has is only because the business landscape for her company is stable and solid.
Zack Kazmarek is a lawyer working for the most exclusive store in all the Midwest. Hartman’s has long purchased their watches from the 57th, proud to carry the gold, jewel encrusted time pieces which are as much a work of art as they are reliable necessities. In fact, Hartman’s is the only store which carries watches from the 57th. When Zack and Molly meet to take discuss their usual purchase agreements he has a big surprise for her: Hartman’s wants to buy the 57th lock, stock and barrel. But Molly, with her myriad of responsibilities, demands more time to think things over. She can’t sell the company simply to gain herself personal wealth – she needs to consider the people who depend upon her first.
It is while Mollie is crunching figures regarding the sale (and taking needed breaks in between to comb through old watch designs) that she comes across the deed to the original watch factory. That building sat upon land which now houses Hartman’s Department Store. Livid because she is convinced Zack’s offer to purchase the company is actually a ploy to steal from her Mollie marches over to his home to confront him. Before their argument can get truly heated a loud explosion pulls their attention away from themselves and on to what is happening around them. It is clear Chicago is burning – and that Mollie’s business is about to be consumed. Racing against the flames she (with Zack at her heels) rushes to relocate her inventory and production materials before all her dreams for the future turn to ash. Along the way they save members of the 57th and one young girl who has been separated from her family. But even as Zack saves her life and helps her time and again Mollie can’t help but be hurt by what has happened. Can she truly trust this man who claims to love her? Or is this just part of his grand scheme to swindle her out of some truly valuable property?
Ms. Camden has the rare ability to capture history and bring it to life. Her descriptions of the mad race to survive the fire and her depiction of life immediately afterwards were eye opening. I felt I was crowded on to the heat seared streets of the city with Mollie, desperately looking for a place of safety. I experienced the elation of survival and the euphoria of rebuilding with the characters. I rejoiced at the teamwork that the citizenry initially felt and then despaired at the anger and mistrust as people realized just how desperate the situation was. It was amazing to learn just how big a national disaster the fire was considered and how the nation responded.
It’s not just the fire that is brought vividly to life. We get a real feel for doing business in and the reality of life during the 1870s in Chicago. Much like today a great deal relied upon instinct, understanding your competition and understanding the market. Mollie as a woman business owner faces extras challenges in a world that is prejudiced against doing business with her due to her gender. I would have liked her to be a little less reliant on the men around her to deal with the business bigotry but it was understandable why that was necessary and while not ideal it is certainly acceptable and in no way ruined the tale for me.
As a historical fiction novel this book is, for the most part, golden. And since a large part of the novel deals with the history the combined excellence of both the research and the prose make the book, for the most part, a riveting read. But while I loved that aspect of the book, the romance portion left more than a bit to be desired.
Mollie has to be tough and practical to survive in her world and I truly enjoyed that about her. But her cluelessness about men and love as the story went on grew grating and difficult. At one point one of the decisions she made resulted in a death that I felt was truly needless and yet I never noticed that she really shouldered responsibility for her mistake. Yes, the villain is always responsible for their own villainy but we should never make choices like carrying large sums of money in dangerous neighborhoods just to make it easy for them.
But what truly confused me was Mollie’s attitude toward the deed. She and Zack bicker endlessly regarding this and are actually separated for part of the book as a result. Yet Mollie admits that it is possible her father was paid for the land and simply failed to sign over the deed. Since the record office burned it is impossible to be certain but Mr. Hartman certainly recalls paying for it and admits that it was a blunder not to be sure the final paperwork went through. Mollie’s own lawyer should have remembered the sale but seems to agree with Mollie that fresh funds are required before they will give back the paperwork. I found this all not only confusing but a tad dishonest. Mollie knows her legal justification for claiming the land is a slender thread but behaves throughout as though she is entitled to a fortune for it. Between the death and the deed, my respect for her disintegrated. She was also very vicious to Zack on several occasions, including disparaging his laborer’s roots. Elitism is never a pretty trait in a character and her words revealed more than a bit about her.
Given that the couple bickered for much of the book and that I actively disliked half the duo I couldn’t get very excited about the romance. While I thoroughly enjoyed Zack’s character -he is charismatic, loyal, kind, honest, hardworking, all the things you want in a hero – I couldn’t root for his love story since that included Mollie.
Ultimately, I found myself torn between the love I felt for many of the characters and my adoration of the historical aspects of the novel and the lackluster love story. A mild recommendation is my way of compromising. The book is definitely worth reading, just don’t expect to be wowed by the love story.