Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.
~ Matthew 10:34-38 (KJV)
We only live, only suspire.
Consumed by either fire or fire.
~ T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
Interested in war trauma, religious mania, and the late 19th/early 20th century labor movement, Henry Fire follows the progress of an eponymous hero as he makes his way from the rural, antebellum South to his demise in the Depression-era Midwest.
The son of an itinerant minister and Civil War veteran, Fire is born in the antebellum South, loses his arm in a farm accident, and — fleeing his mad father — moves up the East Coast to fight Pinkertons in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. Disillusioned by defeat, Fire rides with the Pullman porters, helps instigate their 1894 strike, and eventually finds himself working on Eugene V. Debs’ 1900 presidential campaign.
Pushed ever further West by the first American red scare, WWI, and the dawning decadence of the “Roaring 20s,” Fire returns to his circuit preaching roots as an old man. He wanders the frontier warning of greed and plutocracy and the looming depression.
After hearing rumors about the events at Blair Mountain, Fire decides to return to Appalachia. But before he can leave the frontier, his path crosses that of an intense younger preacher who embodies a new sort of evangelism, one that indulges excess and sees riches as rewards from God.
When Fire challenges this evangelist — rejecting his message and accusing him of false prophecy — the evangelist’s congregation rises up and nails Fire to an improvised cross.
As he dangles from the cross, a train carrying Jazz-age revelers passes by on its way from the West Coast to New York. The passengers laugh, make dismissive remarks, and toss champagne at Fire’s lifeless body.