True Fires

San Francisco Chronicle

January 4, 2004

True Fires
By Susan Carol McCarthy
Bantam; 320 PAGES; $23.95

True Fires is a tale of corruption and justice that unfolds in 1950s, small-town Florida, in the days surrounding the landmark Supreme Court decision that signaled the end of segregation.

When the recently widowed Franklin Dare moves his family south to farm citrus, he runs afoul of the local sheriff, K.A. DeLuth, who has latched onto desegregation as his "Terrifying It" –the boogeyman that will scare the pants off his constituents and get him re-elected. Local law still bans any child more than one-eighth Negro from the all-white school. So, declaring Dare's son Daniel's hair "kinked" and his daughter Rebecca's nose "too wide," DeLuth removes the Dare children from the public school.

DeLuth's time, however, like that of segregation, is running out. Though he wins re-election, the Dares provide unimpeachable evidence that they are, in fact, white, with the help of two powerful women – Lila Hightower, the daughter of the judge and kingmaker who put DeLuth in power, and Ruth Cooper Barrows, a flinty journalist from the north. But it's the young Daniel Dare and a Seminole Indian friend who exact a final justice.

True Fires is a good story, well told. But the rich detail associated with the tradition of Southern storytelling is absent and some of the characters verge on stereotypes. A clumsy attempt to foreshadow the action with a recurring allegory is distracting. Nevertheless, the primary characters are engaging, particularly Lila Hightower and the young Daniel, through whom much of the story is told. And the narrative is strong, fueled by the real events it's based upon and their epochal milieu, and that's enough to sustain the reader.