Rivers on Fire

Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
366 Pages
Reviewed on 02/03/2021
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Author Biography

Paul Buchheit is an author of books, essays, and journal articles. His primary post-doctoral research focus was cognitive science, especially theories of language development. His expertise overlaps and integrates technology, neurobiology, and the social sciences, thus providing him with a unique insight into humanitarian issues. He was named one of the 300 Living Peace and Justice Leaders by the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Tammy Ruggles for Readers' Favorite

Paul Buchheit's 1871: Rivers on Fire is an emotionally involving account of true fires--physical and emotional. Set against the backdrop of the historic fires of Chicago and Peshtigo, a married couple is caught up in the flames, and the social issues that come before and after the events. One fire was in Chicago, the other in Wisconsin--both devastating and history-making. Buchheit intermingles fact with fiction, love with rage, fire with coldness. Beyond the fires and the romance, you will read about themes that may challenge or confirm your ideas on status, minority relations, and the environment. Robert and Liz are an interesting couple. They meet in London during their studies of neurolinguistics, then go to the United States for a project, only to eventually come face to face with the fires. The two encounter historic figures of the era, like John Muir, so you really get a sense of what life was like at that time, prior to and following the disasters.

Buchheit has cleverly combined history with a love story, and the results are not only entertaining but informative. The images are an added bonus. History buffs will love this novel, as will readers who aren't so much into the history of the fires, but the human stories associated with them. These fire touched humanity around them in ways you may have never thought of. This author has conscientiously crafted characters that you will care about, and a compelling plot that is grounded in fact. The descriptions are visceral, the situations heartbreaking at times. The themes of this book go beyond research; they reach into your heart and mind, making you think about the value we place on life, property, and ideals we hold dear. For a powerful trip back in time to two fiery events and their place in history, be sure to pick up 1871: Rivers on Fire by Paul Buchheit.

Foluso Falaye

Paul Buchheit's 1871: Rivers on Fire is a fiction story that includes real people and real events, such as one of the deadliest fires in American history and an important discovery in neurobiology. The protagonists and lovers, Liz and Robert, create an interesting theory of language by building on the discovery that objects of thought are represented by distinct patterns of neurons. In happier times, they had pursued advanced degrees in London and embarked on a romantic odyssey in America. However, over the course of the novel, they experience and witness getting robbed, being separated from each other, racism, sexism, academic subterfuge, and several environmental problems. Will the lovers survive the challenges they face and make a breakthrough in neurobiology?

From science, philosophy, and social issues to heroism, greed, and loss, 1871 is filled with ideas and themes that prompt awareness and deep thoughts about different aspects of life. As a first-person narrative, it vividly depicts the mindset of a woman who lives through some major issues in the United States in 1871, especially the Great Chicago Fire. Liz, the narrator, is portrayed to be observant, conscious, compassionate, and ambitious. I can relate to some of her observations and opinions about conservation and fairness, and I believe the world needs messages like the ones included in the book as they push for a better reality for all. Paul Buchheit narrates his story meticulously and inclusively, immersing readers completely in the lifestyle of the people of the era. Expect your heartstrings to be tugged by this powerful and touching story.

Vincent Dublado

Part historical novel, part love story, Paul Bucheit’s 1871: Rivers on Fire gives you a look back at the deadliest fire accident known to man. We quickly get to know Liz and Robert, who are studying the processes of language formation in the brain, building upon the work of Dr. Alexander Bain. While Liz is in Chicago, preoccupied with the idea of demonstrating the original scholarly articles that she and her soon-to-be husband wrote, she misses Robert who is working in Wisconsin. The contents of Robert’s correspondence at the beginning of the novel are symptomatic that a wide-scale disaster will soon take place, as loggers brush off concerns about the occurrences of fires and families are either moving out or digging cellars, wells, or trenches. People are choking on dust and smoke. Liz and Robert will go through personal and professional adversities, with the great fire as the biggest stumbling block to what they are trying to build together.

Paul Bucheit’s 1871: Rivers on Fire gives you the feeling of being plunged into the inferno. Written from Liz’s point of view, she observes the travails and agonies of common Chicagoans at the height of this great tragedy with glaring intensity. Moreover, it allows you to get up close and personal with Liz and Robert as the story balances its focus on the great fire and the personal lives of the protagonists. Bucheit, however, suggests that you need to have an understanding of the neural frameworks that Liz and Robert are trying to expand on. There will be chapters in which Liz explains the details of their work with linguistic jargon that might elude your grasp. Nonetheless, with Liz facing so many distractions such as getting robbed, filing plagiarism charges against a surly professor, neighbors asking for help, and the great fire, she manages to maintain her humanity. This is a must-read novel that reminds us to recall the things that an individual and society as a whole have learned from a tragic past.

Grant Leishman

Paul Buchheit's 1871: Rivers on Fire is a beautiful love story wrapped inside a treatise on social justice and the perhaps mistaken belief of American exceptionalism. Liz and Robert first met at Kings College, London in early 1869 when they both were studying neurobiology under the guidance of renowned professor Dr. Alexander Bain. Researching the concept of neurons within the brain and specifically the part they may play in the development of language in children was very new and cutting-edge research for the time. Liz, from a middle-class American family in New York, was appalled at the conditions under which most of the population of London were forced to live and along with her romance with Robert, a Scotsman with a penchant for conservation, she began to develop a thirst for social justice. A fortuitous trip to the United States to present a paper at the newly-established University of Chicago exposed the couple to the “American Dream”, which seemed especially to Liz to be a dream for only one class of Americans; wealthy, white men. They are appalled by the lack of rights and the treatment of the now formerly enslaved blacks, along with the Native Americans, and most specifically women. Rob equally is deeply concerned about the effects of deforestation on the land, as well as the potential for catastrophic fires. Their great adventure takes the couple as far as San Francisco but it is the massive Chicago fire of 1871 and the forest fires in northern Wisconsin that will be a seminal event for these young academics.

Paul Buchheit's 1871: Rivers on Fire was a fantastic read for a number of reasons. Paul Buchheit has created a leading character in Liz who is the epitome of the strong, resourceful, and smart nineteenth-century woman attempting to make her mark in an academic world and discipline almost exclusively ruled and populated by elderly white men. She, along with Robert, will not accept that things are the way they are because they are meant to be. Their ideas and opinions on such things as social justice, women’s suffrage, and conservation of natural resources were certainly well ahead of their time. The author does a wonderful job of combining the love story narrative with cutting and perceptive analysis of social conditions, politics, economics, and science in such a way that the narrative never becomes tedious or bogged down in scientific analysis. His descriptive prose especially of the desolation and beauty of the American West but more importantly the fire and its aftermath were absolutely compelling and chilling reading. As a reader, I felt the action and suffering along with the residents of Chicago and the Wisconsin forest land. Combining historical events with fictional prose can be fraught with problems but this author took them all in his stride. I particularly enjoyed the liberal sprinkling of illustrations, paintings, and even photographs of early London and Chicago scenes throughout the book. This was a wonderful read that I can highly recommend.

Steven Robson

Paul Buchheit’s 1871: Rivers on Fire is a stunning kaleidoscope of stark imagery, extracted from the incredibly diverse histories of two worlds: the 1800s of England and America. Narrated from the viewpoint of Liz Werner, a fictional young woman of profound confidence and intellect, this is a chronology of her life experiences as she accumulates a wealth of information about actual events that transpired in the nineteenth century; a deft blending of an imagined life experiencing reality as it passes into history. Liz starts her adventures at the University of London studying Neurobiology, focussing on Neurolinguistics, and in 1871, after nearly five years abroad, she and her study partner Robert are offered an opportunity to move to Chicago to further contribute to their field of endeavor. Life being what it is, Liz and Robert are now set on a path to a future as indistinct as the skies above Chicago on the fateful night of 8th October 1871.

Paul Buchheit’s 1871: Rivers on Fire is quite simply one story everyone should read. It is a living history, given breath by a few fictional characters that are crafted to become as real as the experiences they negotiate. There were many times my jaw literally dropped from the impact of the accounts I was reading, and many more set me on a course of research, hungry to acquire additional details of these actual events from the past; human machinations of myriad complexity too numerous to recount, that shaped cities and countries into where we live now. If there was one message to come out of 1871: Rivers on Fire, it would be that the human spirit can surmount any disaster imaginable, no matter how appalling and shockingly deadly to mind and body, as long as one survivor lives to tell the tale. I recommend this fantastic book as a great read.