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Book Review: Fire on the Water

A historical tragedy becomes fictional literature in this graphic novel which mixes a deep real-world pathos with a genre perhaps more known for superheroes than heroes (although I love how that's continuing to change!) Focusing on the life of Ben Beltran, a fictional version of Garrett Morgan Sr., this book is a perfect example of how literary writing – and illustration, in this case – has the power to cut a reader to the quick as it explores a tragedy surrounding tunnel workers out on Lake Erie in 1916.

I picked up this book because I love history and biography, and this promised to be a little of each complete with incredible illustration – the cover just grabs you. Once I started reading, I finished in two days. I literally didn't want to stop. Like so many of my favorite stories, this is the type of book that mashes genres. It has a little of the flavor of one of those great American Family dynasty novels, focusing on the life story of two brothers, and it gives time to the narrative of how Black inventors in the United States were disenfranchised from their own success and their own inventions: in this case, an early sort of hazmat suit that allows the user to survive fire, smoke and more.

Ben and his brother, Louis, are the epitome of the hardworking American: inventors, entrepreneurs, and moral individuals who help because of the nature of who they are. It's how these men respond to the events of the story that gripped me more than the art, and elevated the story of the Sandhogs – and corruption – into something literary. Ben in particular displays a growth of spirit and strength throughout the novel – a growth that feels authentic and earned.

Through it all, author Scott MacGregor displays a true writer's sense for the protagonist, his times, and the context of those times. The language kept me firmly in the dawn of the 1900's, Gary Dumm's artwork has a great style without overwhelming the story, and the type of society it pictures – well, it's one I knew existed, but living in 2023 and experiencing the kind of diversity I did growing up, and comparing that to the people I see in this novel, makes me realize how truly different society has become (while, unfortunately, the character of some of the antagonists make me realize how society's just about the same.) And all this is of course based on the very real tunnel blast that happened in Cleveland in 1916.

Entertaining, educating, this edition has it all. Five out of five smoke helmets.

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