The Staircase of Fire is an extraordinary book for children aged 12 upwards. The story is set in Shakertown, Kentucky in the 1920s and features a young orphan boy, Tom, who being raised by his Uncle Davis on his farm. Tom is a tormented soul have been instrumental in the accidental death of his baby sister. He is plagued by guilt and bad dreams and has a lot of anger towards anybody who mentions his sister’s unfortunate death. In the manner typical of teenagers, some boys use this as a way of inciting Tom’s ire and he ends up in all sorts of altercations and feeling very victimized. His own troubled state of mind makes it impossible for him to develop wholesome friendships and his budding relationship with the beautiful Helen is thwarted by his own insecurities and doubts.
Tom has developed a close friendship with a Negro woman, Rose, and her son, James. Despite her difficult circumstances, Rose has managed to gain knowledge and become fairly learned through reading books. James is also ambitious to better his position in life. Rose is determined to stand up for her right to vote in terms of the recently passed Nineteenth Amendment, but no stirrings of change in this direction have yet reached the rural farming community where they live. Rose stirs up a lot of trouble for her son and herself when she tries to register to vote. Her actions unleash the anger of the Ku Klux Klan who plan to drive Rose and James out of town. Tom unexpectedly becomes caught up in the Klan’s attempt at retribution.
The story of Rose and James and Tom’s involvement in their lives is a large part of the story but the underlying plot is Tom’s journey towards overcoming his personal demons and moving towards acceptance of his past and an ability to embrace the future. His interactions with people who really care about others and try to help them allows him to do the same and find forgiveness of his own actions and past and to find his own peace and love. As he seeks to remediate his personal hurts, Tom also walks the path of justice with Rose.
I enjoyed the way the author brought small pieces of poetic thought into the story. One such piece that made a big impression on me was as follows:
“The earth soaks up
A cool breeze swirls,
The smell of death.
And the river flows on –
I rated this book five out of five stars.