Elizabeth Hartmann, The Truth About Fire. Carroll & Graf, 2002. Pp. 240. ISBN 0786710217. $24.00.

Reviewed by Djibril

Hartmann is a scholar who normally writes non-fiction books and articles on women's issues, including contraception, and conditions in the developing world. This novel contains evidence of all of these interests, combined with a murder mystery and a terrifying thriller involving white-supremacist religious fanatics, terrorism, and biological warfare. Although a rather short book by some standards, this novel is an excellent demonstration of the fact that an explicit liberal agenda is not incompatible with an exciting, gripping thriller. Hartmann never preaches, nor allows her characters to do so (even the villainous 'Reverend'); she does manage to demonstrate again and again that we should not underestimate these dangerous fanatics, in particular by having the one person in her story do so who should know better.

Gillian is a professor of modern German history in a small, rural US college; she has a rebellious teenage daughter who is half-Indian, and a graduate student, Michael, who is researching a Neo-Nazi fundamentalist group called the Sons of the Shepherd, whom he suspects of murdering a Native American friend of his. Lucy is the wife of a gun-store owner and Shepherd convert, who finds herself increasingly powerless and in the clutches of the Reverend, who forces her to stay at home, coerces her to sleep with him, and recruits her to monitor surveillance tapes of Gillian and her daughter. The Sons of the Shepherd spend their time developing their links with world-wide (and particularly German and South African) neo-fascists, exploiting the financial and practical resources of their congregation, intimidating planned-parenthood clinics, and the like. The novel is narrated in alternate first and third person, following the stories of these two women (one result of which is that we easily forget Gillian's name, since she is referred to by Lucy and the Reverend as 'the Devil-woman'). The two stories intertwine repeatedly, and finally meet in an explosive climax.

Although this story contains both biological warfare and eugenic/racist genetic research, such speculative elements are not a strong part of the plot. We follow Gillian and Michael's research as they get closer to the truth, and can only cringe at their naïveté and helplessness in the face of the ruthless and well-organised extremists. Lucy, on the other hand, starts to learn what is happening from the inside, and never underestimates how dangerous the Reverend is. Meanwhile, everyone has their own life, with their own complications and distractions.

Character development, especially of the two main female protagonists, is excellent, and the story is both gripping and moving. Lucy is coerced but not herself mean; uneducated but not stupid; lacks confidence but does not shirk responsibility. She hand her rehabilitated alcoholic husband are essentially victims of a paramilitary organisation masquerading as a spiritual movement. Gillian is torn between a dozen conflicting priorities: her own academic position; Michael's research; her failing marriage; her strictly improper attraction to her own student; protecting her daughter from the ugly truth she is uncovering, and protecting her from the very real danger she is walking into. In the end, we cannot blame either of these women for even the wrong choices they make, and nor can they each other.

This novel has been largely overlooked: it is only available in most places by import from the US. But it is an excellent book, which deserves to be read not only for its important content, but because it is well-written, suspenseful, moving, and engaging. I recommend it without reservation.

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