ON FIRE by Ouida Sebestyen


Email this review


Words by Heart, Sebestyn's much praised debut, ended with a saintly, dying black man saving the life of Tater Haney, the white-trash teenager who had shot him. In this follow-up Sebestyen deals with the question of whether the life thus saved vindicated that remarkable act of charity. She avoids some obvious problems inherent in the villain's point of view by focusing on another Haney, 12-year-old Sammy, who is fervently attached to his older brother but young enough to yield to other influences. Such an influence presents itself early, in the person of spunky Yankee Belew--""Miss Doodle,"" as Tater will call her. When Tater signs on as a miner in Pegler, Colorado, where Yankee lives, Yankee warns Sammy that the new miners are strikebreakers, working for the company that killed her brother, and they are in danger from union goons. To save Tater, then, Sammy goes to Pegler with Yankee, sharing her squatter quarters and the care of her orphaned nephew, following her lead in seeking food and jobs, and gradually adopting her upright and compassionate moral code. Converting Tater is not so easy, but the memory of his dying victim has been giving him nightmares; and after playing some tough and dirty games for money he breaks down, contrite. By then, though, Tater is already on his way to having his cake, so his redemption may have come a little too easily. Yankee's own struggle to reconcile conviction and compassion involves lots of earnest talk, some of it unlikely given her time, age, and circumstance. And the story's outcome doesn't so much resolve as slight some of the issues it has raised. Nevertheless, the interplay gives young readers some chewy food for thought, and Sebestyen's moral exploration is firmly grounded in an action-packed, unpredictable plot and a stormy historical setting.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1985
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown