The Truth about Fire

The Truth about Fire


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The Truth about Fire by Elizabeth Hartmann, Betsy Hartmann

Surveillance becomes a dangerous two-way street for the women at the center of this powerful literary debut probing the underworld of neo-Nazism in America's heartland. Told through the braided narratives of two women, who unwittingly hold each other's lives in their hands, this suspenseful novel reveals the explosive results when sinister secrets are sought by advocates of tolerance, and personal secrets stolen from them are turned into weapons of hate. Gillian Grace—a professor of modern German history, mother of a biracial teenage daughter, and political researcher into modern fascism—has long promoted pluralism in a multicultural world. Meanwhile, Lucy Wirth is trapped within the extremist realm of the Sons of the Shepherd, a sect with ties to German neo-Nazis. Gillian agrees to help graduate student Michael Landis infiltrate the Sons, whom he suspects in the murder of a Native American friend. But soon Gillian herself becomes an object of their surveillance, for Lucy has been coerced into an affair with the Sons' pastoral leader, then blackmailed into spying on Gillian and her daughter. Through the dangerous journey that follows, the truths of each woman's life poignantly resonate in the world of the other. At stake is the outcome of a biological terror plot that the Sons of the Shepherd are preparing to launch. Gillian and Lucy must choose whether to change their role from passive observers to engaged participants in the unfolding story, so that they may prevent their own lives, and countless others, from burning up in the Sons' flames of terror.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786710218
Publisher: Avalon Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/28/2002
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.82(w) x 8.38(h) x 1.02(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Jewish Wife

It used to be you had to take a ferry between the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan, but progress came by way of the Mackinac Bridge in the late 1950s. It's a stunning bridge, the seeming connecting line between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, whose waters meet under its steel girders. Huron's waters are a deep emerald and Michigan's a purer blue, and that first time I crossed I looked up to see if the sky was divided too.

    I tried to point out the view to Marcy, but she was busy switching radio stations. We had spent the night in Detroit en route from Boston, and Marcy had uttered maybe five words over dinner. Now her silence, combined with the inanity of late-nineties teen radio, was getting on my nerves. I wished I had a ferry ride to recover, though standing alone with my face in the wind would have probably only deepened my sense of foreboding.

    It didn't help that everyone I knew had told me it was a mistake to accept the job at Keweenaw University in Houghton, Michigan. "It's the North Pole up there, geographically and intellectually," a colleague advised me. "You're going to go nuts." But sometimes the only choice you have is to make mistakes. I'd been denied tenure at Boston University because of a conservative dean who didn't think my work was academic enough, and Keweenaw had the only opening in German history in the country. I couldn't go back to Sajit. Only by living in different places could we sustain the illusion of marriage for Marcy's sake.

    How much longer I could sustain that illusion I didn'tknow. All during the drive from Boston, Sajit had been on my mind. It was as if the more physical distance I put between us, the closer he became, and I replayed my past while Marcy played her music.

    I was back at the very beginning now, watching myself climb the steep stone staircase to Sajit's office in a crumbling annex of the Oxford college where I was spending my junior year abroad. I was in two kinds of shock, I guess—sad and exhausted from the shock of my father's death only a month before and in culture shock too, allergic to the damp air, the greasy food, and the curiosity of the English students, who found me an amusing ingenue, a New World mascot for their Old World debauchery. I knocked on Sajit's door and he told me to come in. Then, glancing up briefly from a book, he gestured for me to take a chair.

    I sat there for five minutes while he continued to read. Finally, he closed the book, placed it on top of a pile of papers, and stared at me. "They added you late to my list," he remarked, "and I already have too many students." He paused, and if he smiled, it was not kindly. "I hope you're good."

    I must have blushed. I had heard he was a cruel tutor and would literally tear essays into shreds and throw them at you like perverse confetti. "I'm American," I said. "I'm on the Wellesley Junior Year Abroad Program."

    "Does that make you good?" he asked, taking a pen from his pocket.

    "No, but it doesn't make me bad either."

    He twirled the pen between his fingers. "What's your field?"

    "German and history."

    "Does that mean German history?"


    "What do you mean by maybe?"

    "I haven't decided just how I want to put them together."

    He shook his head in disbelief. "It always astonishes me how long American students have to make up their minds. Very different from this system, you know. Unfortunately, my field is twentieth-century Indian history. I know very little about Germany I'm surprised they assigned me as your tutor."

    "You're the only modern historian in the college," I replied. "Professor Humphrey studies medieval German manuscripts."

    "So why did they assign you to this college in the first place?"

    I shrugged.

    "You really don't know?"


    "Because the master of this college is very clever and knows how to make money off rich Americans. Although I daresay he chooses to invest most of it in the wine cellar and not in fixing up the buildings. If you look behind me, you can see the damp spreading down the wall. My books mildew just as badly here as they did in Calcutta."

    I looked at the patch of damp but felt no pity. "I'm not rich," I stated.

    "Perhaps not, but Wellesley is. Do you know how many mediocre American students I have had sitting before me in that same chair?"

    "Any more than mediocre British students?" I quipped, surprised at my nerve.

    "On a percentage basis, yes."

    "Professor Mukherjee—" I began.

    "I'm not a professor yet, I'm a mere lecturer."

    "Dr. Mukherjee"—I began again—"if you really don't want to be my tutor, I can try to find someone else."

    He leaned forward, pushing away an empty teacup. I couldn't tell his age. He had no wrinkles or gray hair, but there was something about the skin around his eyes, tight and a bit sallow, that suggested he was beyond his twenties. "That's not the point, Miss Grace," he said. "I'm only hoping you'll prove me wrong and modify my estimation of your compatriots." He started twirling the pen again, though this time it slipped and fell on his desk. He picked it up and put it back in his pocket, careful to secure the clip. "Next week I want you to write an essay on why you've chosen history as a field when the job prospects are dismal and politics or literary criticism is far more fashionable. As many words as you like. Let's see how you write."

    I noticed we were the same height when he stood up to let me out the door. He threw me off guard by shaking my hand. His palm was damp and warm.

    The next week I turned in a one-sentence essay. When I went to his office to discuss it, he was reading a play. "Do you like Brecht, Miss Grace?" he asked as I sat down, and I nodded. "Can you read him in German?"


    "Ah, I envy you then. I grew up on Brecht in Calcutta, but I always felt something was missing in the translation. I read your essay," he continued, "and I gather you've been forewarned of my reputation. One page makes less confetti than ten, was that your logic?"

    "I didn't employ logic."

    "What did you employ then?"

    "Truth. Historians are supposed to be interested in the truth."

    "I am studying history because I like it.' Is that sentence your idea of the truth, Miss Grace?"


    "I suppose it's better than the usual nonsense I receive when I ask that question." I watched as he fastidiously folded my essay into a paper airplane. "Let's see where it lands," he said, as he launched it from his desk over my head. It hit a bookcase and fell on the carpet. "Well." He sighed. "It seems we are off to an auspicious start."

    Starting next week, he told me, we would read a collection of short Brecht plays at the beginning of every tutorial. First I would read passages in German, then he would read the same ones in English, and I would comment on the translation. And then we would study German fascism together. One of the leaders of the Indian independence movement, Subash Chandra Bose—or Netaji, as he was popularly called—had sought assistance from the Axis powers in his fight against the British during World War II. Sajit wanted to understand fascism's appeal better. He hoped to understand why an intelligent man like Bose would go down that road.

     I didn't read from Brecht. Instead, I substituted long lines of German swears decrying Sajit's arrogance. Verpiss dich, du arroganter Arsch. Du hast nichts im Sinn. I told him the English translation certainly lacked the passion of the original. Soon I tired of swears and began a stream-of-consciousness monologue about my father's death and how lonely I was.

    Then something changed, though I can't put my finger on exactly what it was. We were reading The Jewish Wife, a short play about a Jewish woman preparing to leave Nazi Germany and the passive response of her gentile husband, who lets her leave without him. She's practical; she packs; she understands the rules of survival Somehow I got into her character and stopped my game, reading this passage to him in German:

I don't want you to tell me not to go. I'm going in a hurry because I don't want to have you tell me I should go. It's a question of time. Character is a question of time. It lasts for a certain length of time, just like a glove. There are good ones that last a long time. But they don't last forever.

I felt his eyes resting curiously on me and wondered if he knew German and had been aware of my subterfuge all along.

    When we finished the play, he got up to put on the electric kettle. He made us tea but forgot I didn't take milk and sugar. When he sat down again, it was on the couch, not behind his desk, and I had to turn my chair to face him. He had on a maroon sweater, and his thick black hair was slightly disheveled. Through the leaded window, a dim ray of evening light crossed his shoe, and I noticed it was badly in need of polishing.

    We had our tea. He even offered me a biscuit. And then, unprompted, he began to tell me about his father, who had died during World War II. As an officer in the British Indian Army, he fought in Burma and was captured by the Japanese. In the prisoner-of-war camp, Bose's followers recruited him to the Indian National Army, and he died fighting on the fascist side. "I'll never know whether he joined Bose because he really believed it was the only way to gain India's independence," he said, setting his empty cup and saucer on the floor, "or because it was the only way to survive. He probably would have starved to death in the camp; maybe he thought he had a better chance in battle, even if it was on the wrong side. You see, I don't know. I always thought my father was a man of character, but character doesn't last forever, as we've just read. Perhaps Bose's men genuinely convinced him right was on their side, but my father was a smart man and a great believer in democracy. He didn't like Hitler."

    "His views could have changed under duress."

    "Do we all pack up when we're under duress?"

    "It's the husband who's guilty in the play, not the wife," I said.

    "Aren't they both guilty of a lack of passion? That's what unsettles me most about that play," He looked at me, not as a professor should, but we were both shy so we returned to history.

    History became our passion and we didn't need Brecht anymore. Sajit was a good storyteller and transported me to Bengal in the early part of the century. Then we would shift to Germany, and he would make me talk about what I read. I analyzed the rise of the Third Reich from every possible angle, and then he made me compare historians, forcing me to have my own point of view. Soon our stories intertwined, as Bose escaped from India in 1941 and made his way to Berlin, where he set up a Free India government. We searched through his papers and broadcasts, trying to understand how such a fine mind could go so wrong.

    As the days grew even darker and damper, I dreaded the end of Michaelmas term and the long Christmas holiday, when my sessions with Sajit would be suspended. I had decided not to go home to Pennsylvania for Christmas—the plane fare was too expensive, and in truth I had little desire to see my mother because she would remind me of the father I no longer had. The college said I could stay in my room, and a nice but boring girl invited me down to her family house in Surrey. Both options seemed dreary.

    One unusually warm afternoon I decided to take one of the college boats out on the river. I rowed up the Cherwell into the University Parks, maneuvering under overhanging branches and around the ducks and grebes. The current was stronger than I'd anticipated, and by the time I turned around it was starting to get dark. My arms were tired, and I was hungry and thirsty and lonely and sad.

    And so Sajit chose that moment to appear, though of course it had nothing to do with choice, it was just the warm afternoon that drove him outside. He was standing on the high arched bridge that spans the river at one of its widest points, watching something in the water. "Miss Grace," he called, "will you be so kind as to give me a ride back?"

    I pulled over to the bank, grabbing hold of a branch to stop the boat. As he put one foot in, the boat edged away and his other foot landed in the water. "Verpiss dich!" he swore.

    "You never told me you knew German," I said, as I extended a hand to help him.

    "Oh, I know a bit, enough to recognize a few swears."

    "So you knew."

    "Knew what? All I know at present is that my shoe is wet. It's no matter, anyway I was casting sticks to see if I should go to High Table or not. The first that came out the other side of the bridge would decide it; long was yes, short was no. But they both disappeared. And now my only pair of decent shoes is wet, so that decides it. Shall I take you out for an Indian meal?" He paused, then quickly added, "part of the tutorial; you know, local color."

    I gave an indeterminate nod and concentrated on the next push of the oars. As I pulled them back, I said that would be nice; I'd never had a proper Indian meal before. Then we both fell into silence, watching the darkness spread on the river like spilled ink.

    The rest is history, as they say, but it's not really, because I remember it differently every time and I'm supposed to be a historian, trained to be objective about my own subjectivity. However, it's impossible in this case because the subjectivity itself is constantly shifting, depending on the particular detail I pick or the mood I'm in. Start with the geography. Is it the walk on Cowley Road that softens me up because I am finally in the "rough" neighborhood the privileged students warned me about and I like it? It's England, not Oxford, small storefronts with bright pink nylon saris in one window and plantains in the next.

    Or is it the weather—still warm, clear enough to see a smattering of stars? Or my body, weary from the rowing but pumping endorphins and hormones and the still-fast blood of youth? Or the food, the lovely food? Sajit knows the owners personally; they speak rapid-fire Bengali with each other and plan a feast for me of flavors I've never tasted before. There is fresh ground chili in the fish, tamarind in the potatoes, and they pour wine like it was water. I cool my mouth with Chardonnay.

    Our knees touch under the table and we both pull away, but not fast enough to prevent the touch traveling up to our eyes.

    Is this really the way it was? I don't know. Only the letter that came the next day stands as genuine historical record:

Dear Miss Grace (or may I call you Gillian?),

I am writing to tell you that I can no longer be your tutor, even though you are one of the best students I have ever had. I should not even see you again. I have done something terribly wrong and I beg your forgiveness. I have fallen in love with you. I do not expect you to reciprocate; in fact, I am trying very hard not to hope for it.

Next week I leave for Devon, where I am renting a small cottage by the sea. I will be alone there, working on my book about Netaji. If for some reason—oh, but I should not hope for it—you have similar feelings to mine, I am enclosing directions on how to get there. I always leave the door unlocked. It is up to you; everything is up to you.

Please do not feel you have to respond to this letter. I am sorry I cannot help myself from sending it. As Brecht wrote, character is a question of time. Passion has finally got the better of mine.

With love, Sajit

    I still look at that letter to remind myself it was I who made the choice. Nowadays I suppose I could plead undue pressure and sexual harassment, but it wasn't the case. I chose, freely and willfully, to go to Devon.

    It was so unlike the choice I was making now to go to Houghton, Michigan. No passion in the decision, just cold calculation. A job, a house, a new school where Marcy wouldn't be labeled for at least a few weeks. Epileptic—they knew how to deal with that, but not with the other part: wild, troublemaker, sexually precocious, "at risk." "Your daughter is at risk," the counselors in Boston had kept telling me. I know, I'm not blind, I'd wanted to shout at them, but aren't we all at risk in some way?


Excerpted from The Truth About Fire by Elizabeth Hartmann. Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth Hartmann. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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