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The Hidden Light of Northern Fires
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January 2018 > The Hidden Light of Northern Fires

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Kath | 203 comments Mod
Discussion will begin the week of January 22nd.


Marlies Borzynski | 61 comments Hi All, I guess this is the beginning of the discussion. The author, Daren Wang, will join the discussion on Thursday at noon in case anyone has any questions for him.
There were a couple of things I noticed in this book. The idea of home seems to be a recurring theme. This book was inspired by Daren's childhood home in Town Line which was built by the Willis family and served as a station for the underground railroad.
You can read the interview about the home and Townline at http://specials.myajc.com/daren-wang/ From Joe wanting to build a cabin for his sister when she comes North to Leander, in a way, looking for home. Mary, even though she did not want to come back to the farm after finishing school seems to be able to make a home for herself there through her abolitionist work. What seems to constitute home and how did the characters find what they were looking for. I believe that even though it did not end well for Joe, he found his home in Mary. Family seemed to be most important.

As a side note, found quite a lot of ironic features about the book. In November we read The Underground Railroad. Both books have strong female protagonist but coming from different sides. Although this book was underway before the Trump election, the discussion about Lincoln "not being my president" resounded for me. How many times did we hear this last year? And lastly, since I only finished the book last night, I had to chuckle when someone referred to Townline as a s***hole place. I guess history really does repeat itself, even as historical fiction.


Kath | 203 comments Mod
Thanks, Marlies, for the link to the interview. I didn't realize quite how much of the book was based on historical fact -- so cool! This book had me googling stuff all of the time to find out more -- the Dug's Dive riot, the secession, some city areas like the Ellicott Square Block.

Interesting comments on the idea of home, Marlies. It did seem that Joe, Mary and Leander were not initially comfortable or satisfied with their "home" in Town Line, but they did all adjust or embrace it at some point. I think you are right that home pretty much = family.

Prior to this book, I knew nothing about the Town Line area or about Buffalo during this time period. I liked the characters and found it fascinating that Mary was a college graduate at this time -- that seemed so unusual to me and I thought how difficult it must have been to have been exposed to the wider world during your education and then have to go back to a more isolated place with a more restrictive role as a woman at that time. Male or female, it seemed that everyone needed a level of hardness (and hardiness) to survive.

I found this to be a very engaging book that gave me a great flavor for the time and place and I look forward to having the author join us for more discussion! I have a couple of questions for Daren and will type them in separately.

[side note: for those interested in Buffalo's architectural history, the site http://buffaloah.com/ has some great info]


message 4: by Rena (new)

Rena | 50 comments I thought this book was very interesting and i liked it very much. Like Kath, it sent me to Google a number of times. I lived in Clarence for a long time and liked all the local references. I was surprised that Town Line had “seceded” but was more surprised that there were people in this small town supporting different sides of the war. It had not occurred to me that there might be pro-rebel people this far north, or that some people in the north were looking for escaped slaves to get the ransom money. I’m not sure why I was surprised, but I was. The interactions between the whole cast of diverse characters really kept the story moving! I agree with Marlies that the whole story was about “Home” and how it meant different things to different people.

And if Mark Twain didn’t say “History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes,” I bet he would have wished he did!


Ellen | 224 comments I just received this book as I ordered it rather late through ILL. Your comments have really intrigued me, so I am looking forward to diving into it tonight and trying to catch up :-)


Marlies Borzynski | 61 comments What does everyone think of Mary's abolitionist activities and her family? Do you think she was so involved because at the time she was looking for something beyond working the farm or was it truly her passion? I believe it was her passion. She took quite a number of risks to get the fugitives into Canada. Even after they tried to arrest her she still continued. She was a strong woman who even stood up to her father. Nathan I believe only wanted to protect his family and land. He didn't believe in slavery although I don't think he would have gone to the same lengths Mary did to get involved. Leander seemed like any 18 year old trying to make his own way in the world. He didn't necessarily want to follow in his father's footsteps but wanted to proved that he knew better than Nathan. As time went on and he grew up a bit, I think he realized all the problems he caused and wanted to make amends

I'm not from Buffalo but whenever I read passages describing Buffalo at the time I tried to picture the area in my mind. Thanks Kath for the wonder info on Buffalo's architectural history. I couldn't figure out exactly where the American Hotel was and didn't know there is a historical plaque in the Main Place Mall that marks the reception for Lincoln.


message 7: by Rena (new)

Rena | 50 comments I think that Nathan loved his daughter very much but would have been more content if she had not been an abolitionist. As it was, he helped her but saw that it might cause trouble to his family and farm which were his main concerns. I believe that Mary was truly passionate about helping the slaves get to Canada, and I had not realized that just making it to a northern state wasn't enough for them to be free. I look forward to hearing what the author says tomorrow.


Kath | 203 comments Mod
I think that Mary was absolutely passionate about getting slaves to freedom but I also think it was an opportunity to work at something beyond her life on the farm (secondary to the abolition cause for sure). I agree with Rena that while Nathan sympathized, he likely would have preferred the family stay out of the anti-slavery activities.

I know Leander finally turned over a new leaf but I found him frustrating in how he squandered money (and privilege, really) while Mary toiled away in a place I didn't feel she chose.


Kath | 203 comments Mod
If Daren has time, I have a couple of questions -- thanks so much for joining our discussion! And apologies if any details in the questions are unclear; it's been weeks since I finished the book and when I read it I didn't realize how much was really based on fact.

1) You used some vivid details that in hindsight I wondered where you got the idea -- one unusual one that stuck with me was a scene where someone was waving to a six-fingered girl. Where did that idea come from?
2) Were the brief news clippings in the book real?
3) In your research did you find that Mary Willis had been involved with the Michigan Street church? Was it common for white people to be involved there?
4) Was Isabel based on a real historical figure?


message 10: by Amy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Amy I'm late to the discussion- sorry! But all the yeses! I loved that we read this right after Underground Railroad- both had strong lady protagonists that drove the story and Marlies, you're right, home, defining home, and yearning for home was a theme in both books (although each book was very different).

I'd love to hear from Daren about his inspiration, his research, how much is based on truth, etc. I knew there was a KKK in our area, but I never knew we had a locality secede.

PS- Kath, Leander drove me coconuts!


message 11: by Rena (new)

Rena | 50 comments I’m glad to know that other people didn’t like Leander either. I didn’t read Underground Railroad yet but I have heard good things about it and it’s on my list. I’m looking forward to hearing how the author decided to write about this time in this place.


Marlies Borzynski | 61 comments Hi All,

I want to welcome and thank Daren for joining us today to give us his insights into the Hidden Lights of Northern Fires. I'm going to get the questions started. For full disclosure I read one of the earlier versions of the book in 2013 when it was called Broken Place. My question to Daren is.....during the editing process did you feel that the characters had changed at all and if so, was that due to editing or your preference as the writer? I found that the organization between that book in 2013 and the published one was much better but the characters seemed to have changed a little.


message 13: by Rena (new)

Rena | 50 comments Who is here?


message 14: by Daren (new)

Daren Hi all, I'm finally here. Sorry for the tech problems.


message 15: by Daren (new)

Daren One of the biggest changes that I had to make during the editing process was the removal of a central character. In the earlier versions, Yates had a younger brother, Shelby, who went in pursuit of Joe right away. A very smart writer advised that I had at least one too many main characters, and that I needed to excise one. It was painful, but I did it. The changes in character from version to version was driven quite a bit by that.


Marlies Borzynski | 61 comments I'm here too! Daren, Kath posted some questions above. Here they are:

1) You used some vivid details that in hindsight I wondered where you got the idea -- one unusual one that stuck with me was a scene where someone was waving to a six-fingered girl. Where did that idea come from?
2) Were the brief news clippings in the book real?
3) In your research did you find that Mary Willis had been involved with the Michigan Street church? Was it common for white people to be involved there?
4) Was Isabel based on a real historical figure?

If anyone else has questions please feel free to add


message 17: by Rena (new)

Rena | 50 comments I bet that was difficult, although probably a good move. It gave greater focus to the characters that were left.


message 18: by Daren (new)

Daren Kath--
The six-fingered girl is actually the great poet Lucille Clifton. Both she and I were born in Depew, so when I sent Mary through that area, I put her on a street corner waving. She was born with six fingers, but had the extra removed when she was an infant.
I have no record of Mary being involved in the Michigan St. Church--it was just a logical leap. I wanted to include the church, of course, and it would make sense to have them as a a depot as such, given where there were.
Some clippings and such are real, some I made up. I can tell you if you have specific ones you want to know about.
Isabel is distantly related to a signature I have in an autograph book from the time. It was a man, very wealthy, who is most famous these days for being the Fitch in Abercrombie and Fitch. She started out as his daughter, and changed many times over the drafts.


message 19: by Rena (new)

Rena | 50 comments How did you find out about this part of the history of Town Line? I lived in the area for ages but never heard anything about it. If I didn’t know you were a local, I might have thought you were making it up.


message 20: by Daren (new)

Daren As far as Home is concerned--this book is something of a love letter to Buffalo, Alden and Town Line. I became more and more homesick as I researched and wrote it. So it's that longing that infuses the book. Mary wants nothing more than to leave at the beginning, but she doesn't understand what it would cost her.


message 21: by Daren (last edited Jan 25, 2018 09:46AM) (new)

Daren And oh boy, the Leander hate! :)
He's the character I sympathize with most. Marlies knew me when I was that age. I think of all the stupid decisions and lost opportunities of that age, and I put that foolishness into a time when the decisions had bigger stakes, and I got Leander. He's just an 18-year-old kid with a bad hangover and a nasty argument with his dad when he makes the worst decision of his life.


Marlies Borzynski | 61 comments Back to the topic of real characters....is Charles actually a real person ...did they have a farm next to the Willis'?


message 23: by Daren (new)

Daren Rena--The Town Line Secession is really that place's only identity. Up until about five years ago, the firemen wore a patch that said, "Last of the Rebels" with a confederate flag. I grew up in Mary Willis' barn, so finding that story became my passion.


message 24: by Daren (new)

Daren The main house, what we called the front house, really does have a tunnel in the basement and a large brass bell on the roof, or it did while I lived there.


message 25: by Kath (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kath | 203 comments Mod
Thanks for your responses, Daren!
I'll have to check out Lucille Clifton - very cool details.
I didn't have any specific questions about the news clippings; while I was reading it, I assumed they were all made up and then after reading more about your process I realized they could have been real.

I imagine your research process was quite a rabbit hole but so very interesting!


message 26: by Daren (new)

Daren Charles is kind of a real person. John Webster lived next door to the Willises, and Mary did end up marrying him. I changed his name to Charles because you can't have a love triangle where the men are named "Joe" and "John". Oddly, I couldn't bring myself to change Joe's name, even though Joe is fictional.


message 27: by Daren (new)

Daren Kath wrote: "Thanks for your responses, Daren!
I'll have to check out Lucille Clifton - very cool details.
I didn't have any specific questions about the news clippings; while I was reading it, I assumed they w..."


Daren wrote: "The main house, what we called the front house, really does have a tunnel in the basement and a large brass bell on the roof, or it did while I lived there."

The clippings about the riot is real, as is the one about Lincoln's arrival, and the telegram warning of the Confederate attack on Buffalo as well. Charlie's letters were all made up, of course.


Marlies Borzynski | 61 comments I know you did a lot of research on the whole area and time. How did you decide what was important and what to leave out? I'm sure there were a lot of things you wish you could have included.


message 29: by Daren (new)

Daren Marlies wrote: "I know you did a lot of research on the whole area and time. How did you decide what was important and what to leave out? I'm sure there were a lot of things you wish you could have included."
That may have been the toughest part, what to leave out. The history of WNY is so rich, I found myself digging deeply into this facet or that. I'd spend 2-3 months researching something, then it might end up as a brief mention, a hidden detail that only I would know. Like the whole Ebenezer thing--that religious movement was so fascinating--I read a bunch of histories, etc. And then I have a couple lines about them in a letter from Charlie and nothing more.


message 30: by Rena (new)

Rena | 50 comments It was so interesting to read this book. The southern sympathizers living near the northern ones, the abolitionists near the copperheads, etc. It felt like real life - most civil war era novels are one sided. I have to bail out now but thank you Daren for coming to talk with us. I look forward to your next book!


message 31: by Daren (new)

Daren Daren wrote: "Marlies wrote: "I know you did a lot of research on the whole area and time. How did you decide what was important and what to leave out? I'm sure there were a lot of things you wish you could have..."

In the end, you have to cut what doesn't move the story or develop a character. Otherwise, it seems like you're just showing off your research, which I think can be deadly.


message 32: by Kath (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kath | 203 comments Mod
It was hard to keep in mind how young Leander was -- you are right, of course, that that age is rough (and with underdeveloped impulse control) and his bad decisions just rippled out in such huge waves. :)

Having that tunnel in your house must have been so eerie.

Also, I appreciated the context you provided in the article Marlies sent us (from the AJC website) about the German immigrants/refugees of the 1840s and how their perspectives could have been formed into a secessionist mind set. Reading that article later gave me a more nuanced viewpoint than my knee-jerk liberal tendencies allowed during my reading of the book.


message 33: by Daren (new)

Daren As I write in that piece, Town Line had been cruel to me at times. Writing this book--really delving into what I thought these people were thinking--changed me. Harry was meant to be that voice, that perspective of Town Line and how most of the issue was ignorance. He says at one point that he'd never seen a black man until he saw Joe. He only knew what he'd heard.


message 34: by Daren (new)

Daren Rena wrote: "It was so interesting to read this book. The southern sympathizers living near the northern ones, the abolitionists near the copperheads, etc. It felt like real life - most civil war era novels are..."

It was nice chatting with you.


message 35: by Kath (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kath | 203 comments Mod
Daren wrote: "Kath wrote: "Thanks for your responses, Daren!
I'll have to check out Lucille Clifton - very cool details.
I didn't have any specific questions about the news clippings; while I was reading it, I a..."

I found the Lincoln train passage information so poignant that he passed through at inauguration and after death.


Marlies Borzynski | 61 comments Daren wrote: "As I write in that piece, Town Line had been cruel to me at times. Writing this book--really delving into what I thought these people were thinking--changed me. Harry was meant to be that voice, th..."

I've known you for so long and I never pictured you as Harry. Now that you mention it I can see it. I liked the character of Harry because he was such a free spirit. I think in some ways he was conned into working for the confederacy


message 37: by Daren (new)

Daren Kath wrote: "Daren wrote: "Kath wrote: "Thanks for your responses, Daren!
I'll have to check out Lucille Clifton - very cool details.
I didn't have any specific questions about the news clippings; while I was r..."

I found the Lincoln Funeral Train schedule hanging on the wall in a Batavia museum. Can you imagine finding that Lincoln passed through the farm you grew up on, and not knowing the whole time you grew up there? It floored me.


message 38: by Daren (new)

Daren Marlies wrote: "Daren wrote: "As I write in that piece, Town Line had been cruel to me at times. Writing this book--really delving into what I thought these people were thinking--changed me. Harry was meant to be ..."

I'm sorry, I didn't mean that Harry was me. I meant that Harry was kind of a stand in for all of Town Line. He starts out as hating Joe, but he progresses. I think Town Line is a different place than it once was.


Marlies Borzynski | 61 comments Thanks for joining us today Daren. I guess most of us are going back to work. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions and get some more insight into the making of the book

If anyone has any other questions for Daren, let me know and I will forward them to him.


message 40: by Daren (new)

Daren Amy wrote: "I'm late to the discussion- sorry! But all the yeses! I loved that we read this right after Underground Railroad- both had strong lady protagonists that drove the story and Marlies, you're right, h..."

Amy--I often say that the weird stuff is true. A northern secession town, a college graduate Underground Railroad conductress, a conspiracy to unleash confederate prisoners on the Buffalo waterfront--that stuff has to be true. People falling in love, killing each other, betraying each other--that stuff that happens every day, that I made up.


message 41: by Kath (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kath | 203 comments Mod
Daren wrote: "Can you imagine finding that Lincoln passed through the farm you grew up on, and not knowing the whole time you grew up there? It floored me.."

I cannot imagine finding out that Lincoln passed through my own yard; it gave me chills just thinking about his passage nearby!

This was such a treat to discuss your work, Daren -- thanks so much for your time! And thanks for Marlies for arranging this!


message 42: by Becky (new)

Becky | 5 comments I feel really late. It's been a crazy week, last one before classes. Trying to push everything in.
I did enjoy the book. Rushed through a little. I will have to read all the comments and google a few things myself. I would be really cool to go to the town and wander around. Anyone up for a field trip in the Spring/Summer?
Marlies, please thank Daren for joining us. His additions are great. Leander reminded me of my boys at certain ages. Happily we were able to guide them past those times.
Thanks everyone for a great discussion. I am working on getting the next book now. :-)
Have a nice weekend everyone!


Marlies Borzynski | 61 comments One last post...I guess everything has been said. Thanks everyone for your questions for Daren. I hope it gave some insight into the book. Our next book will be Lincoln in the Bardo. Kath will lead the discussion.


Ellen | 224 comments I finally finished reading the book yesterday. I really enjoyed it and then reading through your exchange with the author. Thank you for arranging this, Marlies!


Susan Bartl | 7 comments I have been inspired by this discussion to borrow the book from my local public library and plan to read it when I finish my current book. (which I want to wrap up by the weekend) :-)


message 46: by Daren (new)

Daren Hey all--I'm subscribed to this thread, so I get a notification whenever you post. If you are still reading, please feel free to post any questions that come up, or post them on my Goodreads page.

Thanks again for a fun discussion.


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