Veil of Fire Draws in Reader with Anonymous Character

Cheryl Russell

Author:  Marlo Schalesky
Title:  Veil of Fire
Publisher:  River Oak

On September 1, 1894, a firestorm incinerated east-central Minnesota in just four hours, killing hundreds of people. Hinckley was one of six towns caught in the maelstrom's path. After the fire, the townspeople returned to begin rebuilding. As Hinckley rose from the ashes, a rumor began to circulate that a survivor, burned beyond recognition, lived as a hermit in the hills. Veil of Fire is the legend reborn into a story of lives forever touched, physically and emotionally, by the insatiable flames of that terror-filled day.

Nora is busy working on a grey silk dress while answering never-ending questions from her daughter, Ellie. Nora is uneasy about the unusually hot day and the light that seems to darken. Then their horse, Meri, begins to scream. Nora rushes outside and sees flames roaring toward her house, feasting on the wheat fields in its path. She hunts for an escape path, but fire surrounds her. She hears two sharp blasts of the Number Four train, rescue that runs on the tracks east of her farm. Will Meri be able to outrun the flames?

As Nora and Ellie flee the flames on horseback, farmer Josef Strom clutches his baby daughter. Now six months old, her life, as well as the lives of her parents, is threatened by the ravenous fire. As Josef fights to get his family to the safety of the town's gravel pit, he's confronted with a decision not conceived of in his worst nightmares.

Unlike Nora, Ellie, and the Strom family, Arla is one of the lucky few. She's on the train as it races backward from Hinckley, but her heart and conscience are still in town. In a panic to save her own life, she sacrificed another and the guilt bears down on her as the fire bears down on the train.

After the fire, the townspeople return to rebuild and bury their dead. But Lars Jenson isn't one of the grieving. He identifies two of the bodies as his wife and daughter and feels relief. They've taken family secrets to their graves and now he is free to live his life as he originally intended—as a highly respected, wealthy businessman. 

But not all of the survivors return to Hinckley. One remains on the fringes, burned beyond recognition. This one victim longs for the company of others, but fears the townspeople's reactions. Rumors begin to flit through the town about a hermit or ghost living in the hills. Word gets back to this lonely survivor, adding more anguish to a tormented existence.

But the truth refuses to stay buried in the ashes. Through the rebuilding process, separate chains of events eventually join, forcing the facts into the open. Some are set free, to live a life of peace after the fire. Truth isn't so kind to others. 

Veil of Fire is written by Marlo Schalesky, an author of multiple historical fiction novels who has written this book a bit differently. Most of the book is written in third person, but she has also written parts from a first person point of view, that of the survivor hiding in the hills. Getting into the mind of this anonymous character (whose identity isn't revealed until the end) is powerful as the reader is there when the first reflection is seen in a pond of water, as the struggle to survive is almost overwhelming and the loneliness, heartbreaking. That intimate touch, combined with the stories of the other survivors, makes a strong, worth-recommending, novel.

© 2007 Infuze Magazine
.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.