Since I live in northern Alabama in a large cotton-producing area, the descriptions of 12-year-old Nicholas Dray’s backbreaking cotton-picking efforts in Texas ring very true. Although cotton picking in our region is now done by machines, the descriptions accurately echo those I have heard from long-time area residents. Picking a 100-pound bag of cotton is a difficult feat for an adult, much less a child as Nick accomplishes in the story.
Author Deborah Hopkinson realistically portrays the poverty Nick lives in with his grandmother on Mr. Hanks’ farm and his poignant despair when he is orphaned after she dies and he is sent to the Lincoln Poor Farm for Indigents and Orphans. Nick dreams of someday leaving the cotton fields and going to San Francisco - he thinks it is the “Paris of the Pacific.” I have visited San Francisco many times and envisioned that dream with him. The story begins with Nick on the streets of San Francisco, fleeing a city policeman. Hopkinson weaves flashbacks of Nick’s life in Texas in subsequent chapters.
The author’s careful research makes her depictions of the events of the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906 quite accurate, even to some of the characters reflecting the lives of people who lived then. Nick’s character is based on the real Charles Nicholas Dray, who ran away from a county poor farm and was taken in by a local merchant just days before the earthquake and fires.
He saved the owner’s business records and the owner’s dog, too. Nick’s encounter with the policeman Bushy Brows in the first chapter show the reader how independent and mature this 12-year-old boy is. His evolving friendship with the young Chinese boy, Tommy, helps define Nick’s character and shows his acceptance of someone different from himself. The boys find themselves in similar situations since both have lost their families. The little neighborhood girl Annie and her mother bring more friendships for Nick into the story.
Nick demonstrates his resourcefulness in getting the stationery shop owner, Pat Patterson, to hire him and provide him a place to live: Nick’s ability in calligraphy wins over the store owner, who also needs someone to care for his dog and provide security for the store when he travels. Nick bonds quickly with the golden dog, Shake (Shakespeare), and their connection holds throughout the remainder of the story.
The reader realizes at this point that Nick is finally “out of the cotton fields” and that the intensive hard labor is behind him. The “Firestorm” defined in the title of the book is pending, however, so Nick’s newly acquired ‘good life’ cannot last long. When the earthquake and fires hit, the store owner is out of town. Nick responds with his usual resourcefulness, finds Shake (who has fled in fear), and obtains medical care for Annie’s mother as she goes into labor.
Most of San Francisco was either leveled by the earthquake or burned to the ground by the ensuing fires from open gas mains or faulty stoves, so Nick must navigate these disasters to achieve his goals. Nick tries to save some valuable inkwells from the stationery shop, but they are lost during his escape. The owner lauds Nick for his efforts when he returns, though, and appreciates that Nick found his beloved dog.
Nick’s heroism is picked up by the local media with a newspaper headline: BOY HERO RISKS ALL & SAVES DOG. The article describes how Nick defied a soldier who mistook him for a looter. Nick and the store’s owner re-open the stationery shop with an announcement:
Shakespeare’s Scribes Quality Stationers, Open for Business in the New San Francisco, with a New Name and Expanded Management TeamMr. Patterson, ever the alert businessman, realizes that many San Franciscans will need to write the folks back home that they are safe, and he offers the writing expertise of “Pat and Nick with their worthy Shakespeare (Shake) at their sides.”
The flashbacks remind readers of Nick’s painful past. Just as he seems to be making it in San Francisco, the reader is thrust back to his poverty and intense labor in the cotton fields. These transitions keeps the new life Nick is trying to achieve vividly alive.
This book is a must read for those who enjoy historical fiction. The story truly brings the events of the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco alive through the eyes and actions of a 12-year-old boy.