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The Fire by Night: A Novel

The Fire by Night: A Novel

by Teresa Messineo

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A powerful and evocative debut novel about two American military nurses during World War II that illuminates the unsung heroism of women who risked their lives in the fight—a riveting saga of friendship, valor, sacrifice, and survival combining the grit and selflessness of Band of Brothers with the emotional resonance of The Nightingale.


A powerful and evocative debut novel about two American military nurses during World War II that illuminates the unsung heroism of women who risked their lives in the fight—a riveting saga of friendship, valor, sacrifice, and survival combining the grit and selflessness of Band of Brothers with the emotional resonance of The Nightingale.

In war-torn France, Jo McMahon, an Italian-Irish girl from the tenements of Brooklyn, tends to six seriously wounded soldiers in a makeshift medical unit. Enemy bombs have destroyed her hospital convoy, and now Jo singlehandedly struggles to keep her patients and herself alive in a cramped and freezing tent close to German troops. There is a growing tenderness between her and one of her patients, a Scottish officer, but Jo’s heart is seared by the pain of all she has lost and seen. Nearing her breaking point, she fights to hold on to joyful memories of the past, to the times she shared with her best friend, Kay, whom she met in nursing school.

Half a world away in the Pacific, Kay is trapped in a squalid Japanese POW camp in Manila, one of thousands of Allied men, women, and children whose fates rest in the hands of a sadistic enemy. Far from the familiar safety of the small Pennsylvania coal town of her childhood, Kay clings to memories of her happy days posted in Hawaii, and the handsome flyer who swept her off her feet in the weeks before Pearl Harbor. Surrounded by cruelty and death, Kay battles to maintain her sanity and save lives as best she can . . . and live to see her beloved friend Jo once more.

When the conflict at last comes to an end, Jo and Kay discover that to achieve their own peace, they must find their place—and the hope of love—in a world that’s forever changed. With rich, superbly researched detail, Teresa Messineo’s thrilling novel brings to life the pain and uncertainty of war and the sustaining power of love and friendship, and illuminates the lives of the women who risked everything to save others during a horrifying time.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Messineo’s historical novel, his debut, dovetails the hardships of friends Jo McMahon and Kay Elliot, who serve as military nurses on separate ends of the Earth during World War II. After surviving a hard childhood and enduring the reign of a rapist doctor alongside Kay in their New York hospital, Jo fights off despair by committing herself to saving the six soldiers stranded with her in a makeshift hospital tent in France. With the rest of her medical team dead, Jo single-handedly navigates illness, lack of supplies, and the threat of both Axis and Allied soldiers. Meanwhile in the Pacific, Kay is captured and held as prisoner, during which time she witnesses many atrocities. Messineo’s writing style, in which scenes often play out without extensive explanation but are later elucidated, adds to the feel of wartime chaos and works well with the story’s disjointed time jumps. Glimpses into Kay’s brief happiness become a welcome necessity as tragedy piles on tragedy, though Jo’s love story feels tacked on and unconvincing. The object of Jo’s affections, a soldier, spends the majority of their time together delirious with typhus and fever. The novel’s strength lies in how well it conveys—mostly without sentimentality—the selflessness and bravery of nurses during the darkest hours. The narrative remains engaging throughout, though the plot ultimately feels like it stops mid-sentence. (Jan.)
David Gilham
“THE FIRE BY NIGHT is quite simply historical fiction at its best: a genuine page-turner, with vivid language and rich, unforgettable characters. But more than that, it’s a startling anthem to the service and sacrifice of women in World War II.”
Laird Hunt
“With strong, sharp characters, explosive situations, marvelous detail, epic sweep, this fine first novel of war and friendship has it all.”
Lauren Willig
“A luminous once-in-a-lifetime story of war, love, loss and the enduring grace of the human spirit. I can’t remember the last time I was so deeply moved by a novel. You must read this book!”
Karen White
“An epic story of love, loss and survival that weaves meticulous research together with the complexities of the human heart. This novel is not to be missed.”
Library Journal
It's early 1945, and American military nurse Josephine McMahon is trapped in France behind enemy lines with six patients. The tiny hospital tent becomes her world, as the shell-shocked lieutenant tries to find compassion left deep inside her to save the lives of "her men" despite having little food or medical supplies. Meanwhile, her good friend Kay Elliot is in the Philippines, first starving in the tunnels of Corregidor in 1942, and then taken prisoner by the Japanese at Santo Tomas in Manila. Flipping between Josephine and Kay's gruesomely detailed war experiences, Messineo's meticulously researched first novel explores themes of sexism, loss, desperation, trauma, and hope. The stream-of-consciousness style reflecting both characters' battle fatigue can be confusing to follow, as can the differing time lines of the war in Europe and the Pacific. The nuanced and harsh depiction of a "just war" follows the recent trend of World War II fiction including Chris Cleave's Everyone Brave Is Forgiven and Kelli Stuart's Like a River from Its Course. VERDICT Despite an underdeveloped prose style, Messineo has an eye for accurate historical detail and skillfully portrays her characters' inner emotions; this story will stay with readers long after they have finished the book. [See Prepub Alert, 8/1/16.]—Christine Barth, Scott Cty. Lib. Syst., IA
Kirkus Reviews
Two army nurses, friends from training, endure the personal and professional insults of World War II.Debut novelist Messineo captures the intensity of grimy conditions in field hospitals and internment camps as well as the exhausted yet relentless sense of duty propelling Kay Elliot and Jo McMahon. Near the front lines of the western front, Jo finds herself stranded with six patients and a shellshocked doctor. Her co-workers, who had promised to send a truck back for them, have been wiped out by enemy fire, the road has been destroyed, and German troops hover, ready to overtake her field hospital. The doctor is no longer sure which war he’s in, one of the patients requires an immediate appendectomy, only four penicillin doses remain, and Jo’s beginning to feel her heart strings pulled by the Scotsman who’s likely dying of typhus. How will she bring her patients through this latest crisis? Meanwhile, in the Pacific theater, Kay has nearly hit rock bottom herself. First stationed in glamorous Pearl Harbor, Kay had fallen in love and secretly married a devoted pilot. Yet the attack on the base stripped her of everything, and she’s eventually taken prisoner by the Japanese, who force her to work at a POW hospital infested with rodents and possibly conduct unethical medical experiments. Alternating between each woman’s perspective, chapter by chapter, Messineo is at her best when describing the squalid environment and psychological mayhem, creating an All Quiet on the Western Front from American women’s perspectives. In the theaters of wars, these nurses practice astonishing acts of mercy—including the embrace of a lover during a soldier’s death throes. Although some of the romantic interludes siphon off some energy, Jo’s and Kay’s devastating military experiences ring true. A vibrant telling of the nurses’ nightmares during a brutal war.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Meet the Author

Teresa Messineo spent seven years researching the history behind The Fire by Night, her first novel. She is a graduate of DeSales University, and her varied interests include homeschooling her four children, volunteering with the underprivileged, medicine, swing dancing, and competitive athletics. She lives in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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