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Bernadette Rule
Dark Fire
Dark Fire is the true story of the Drews and Lawrences, two young families who were massacred in the struggle to form a tobacco growers' union in 1920s Kentucky. Painstakingly researched and written with rare empathy, Dark Fire invites readers into a detailed recreation of the brief, incandescent lives of four adults and seven children whose murder has long been shrouded in mystery and collective silence.
Hamiltoon Arts & Letters

Review of  Bernadette Rule's Dark Fire, by Timothy Christian:

Dark Fire burns so brightly I could not put it down and could not stop thinking about it.  Bernadette Rule researched and wrote this book twenty-five years ago, and the long gestation led to a sharp, refined, perfectly fashioned and compelling account of a tragedy of primordial viciousness.  This is storytelling at its best.

The tale unfolds from the perspective of Pat Rule, our eight-year-old narrator.  He is unbiased and brings a child's innocence, telling the story in a calm voice that somehow emphasizes the horror we are anticipating.  We find ourselves among the descendants of people who fled the potato famine in Ireland, relocated to Ky, took up subsistence tobacco growing, found themselves on different sides in the Civil War, and lost sons in the First World War.  We meet unforgettable characters.  Uncle Dave, freed from slavery, remembers what others have forgotten, and though blind, he tells people the history of their families, keeping track of each generation with a notch on his memory stick.  Blackbird, known for his superstitious nature, advises on practical ways to avoid misfortune and walks about town with his matched terriers, Pete and Repeat.  And Sammy Smythe, a perpetual candidate for public office is a "slicked up, pig-faced man in a white suit."

The scenes are richly set.  We smell the sickeningly sweet tobacco blossoms and the wood fires used to cure the valuable leaves.  We feel the fat green worms plucked from the underside of the tobacco leaves before we squeeze their heads off.  We turn away from the stench of the sow's blood spurting into the pan.  We hear the horses whinnying, the mules hawing, and the rooster Hercules crowing at noon as bidden by Granny Rule.  We can smell the inside of Uncle Berry's grocery store, and see the tinned goods neatly shelved across the aisle from the candy counter.  We are treated to the sweet smell of a sleeping child as we are transported to rural Ky in the 1920s.

The accents and turns of phraase signal how unique is this world where people get as jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.  Shy of expressing their love out in the open didn't mean it wasn't there.  "It was jist understood, like the air."  Things were left unsaid.  "It was always parables and stories, and you was left to sort it through the best way you could."  When our narrator looks into a freshly dug grave, "I seen a drizzly image of myself" in a rain puddle.  The grieving grandmothers' eyes "looked like two holes burnt in a blanket, like they say."  The poetry of the language draws us deeper into the story.

The tobacco farmers join together to stand up to the tobacco merchants, hoping to force them to pay more for the cured leaves that require back-breaking labor.  To succeed, the Association requires all farmers to act in unison, withholding their tobacco until the merchants pay higher prices--"United we stand, divided we fall."  It is a loose movement ruled by high emotion but little discipline.  To assert its power, the Association forms the Night Riders.  They wear their jackets inside out so they can't be identified.  Groups of them ride at night, confronting and intimidating those farmers and their wives who do not support the Association--brutal violence reigns.  After the Night Riders burn down the town's tobacco chute, the National Guard is called in to restore order and permit trials of the Night Riders.  The local judge is the brother of a prosperous tobacco merchant, and the law sides with the merchants.  Intimidated by the Night Riders, witnesses do not come forward, and the legal process is frustrated.


At first, the Night Riders are led by Ray Tibbs, a clever orator and strategic thinker, but when he is jailed for contempt of court, leadership falls to the most extreme voices in mob-like meetings.  The desperate farmers wrongly identify Ernest Lawrence as a traitor to their movement.  In their irrational anger, a mob of Night Riders attacks the Lawrence home, shooting and hacking to death eleven members of the Lawrence and Drew families, including mothers, babies, and children.  The mob sets the home alight to cover up their crime.

We know from the Prologue how this saga will end, but the storytelling is so compelling we hungrily turn each page and come to know the victims in almost painful intimacy.  When the inevitable attack occurs, the matter-of-fact description leaves nothing out, but does not exaggerate or dramatize.  The bare facts are enough--the stuff of nightmares.

Neighbors make donations to pay for the tombstone which marks the mass grave.  It records that eleven members of the Lawrence and Drew families met a horrible death in the burning of the Lawrence home, and cites it as "one of the unsolved mysteries."  Bernadette Rule has solved the mystery insofar as we now know who perpetrated the murders and why, but we do not get closure.  The fact that the legal system utterly failed the victims and their families "relegates these deaths to the level of human sacrifice."  The communtiy decided to move on and not inquire further.  It could not explain to itself how such evil could dwell in the hearts of fellow citizens and manifest itself in the brutal murder of complete innocents.  Rule concludes it is an example of human sacrifice comparable to riturals perpetrated in the jungles of the Amazon.  Through the technique of cretive nonfiction, Rule brings to life this true story which resonates long after the act of reading--as powerfully as the finest fiction.