Eagle-Eyed Editor

Susan Wiggs and the Great Chicago Fire trilogy


John R. Chapin’s “Chicago in Flames — The Rush For Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge”. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When I was in grade school, our principal would take the fifth and sixth grade students on a camping trip during the fall. It was the ultimate field trip. We learned practical skills such as orienteering and cooking (our stoves were tuna fish cans with cardboard and paraffin, placed underneath a gallon-size tin can with holes for smoke). A nearby pond was our science class.

We also had nighttime snipe hunts (teachers scaring the daylights out of us kids) and we learned a variety of camp songs. One of them was about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and I still remember the tune:

One dark night, when we were all in bed,

Mrs. O’Leary left the lantern in the shed.

And when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said,

“There’ll be a hot time in the ol’ town tonight!”

When I recently came across the Chicago Fire trilogy by Susan Wiggs, I was intrigued due to the books’ setting in a historical background and decided to read them. The books feature three characters: Deborah, a kidnapped socialite; Lucy, a bookstore owner, suffragette and mom to a child saved from the fire; and Kathleen, an Irish maid who dresses up as a high-society woman that night as a bet.

Did I mention Kathleen’s last name is O’Leary? Mmmm-hmmmm, that O’Leary family. (Historical note: According the sources I’ve read, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow didn’t actually start the fire. A reporter made up that tale.)

Another history tidbit: The Chicago Fire Academy now occupies the land where the O’Leary family lived. A Maltese cross on the first floor of this building marks the spot.

Susan Wiggs skillfully weaves real historical characters and the fire into the lives of her fictional characters, and as a writer, I admire that. She does a great job of interweaving the characters’ storylines as well. In one book, Lucy and Kathleen escape from the fire and their coach overturns. An unknown man comes along, uses a knife to cut through the tangled reins and runs off the horses, giving them a chance to survive. That unknown man (no, I’m keeping it a secret) turns out to play a significant role in another book in the series.

Yes, the books are historical romances. (Oh, quit rolling your eyes, boys.) Lucy is The Firebrand, Kathleen is The Mistress and Deborah is The Hostage. For anybody who likes good fiction set against a historical background, these books are a good summertime read for the beach, porch swing, backyard or anywhere else. Enjoy!