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Reviewed by:
  • How Fire Runs by Charles Dodd White
  • Randi Adams (bio)
Charles Dodd White . How Fire Runs. Athens, Oh.: Swallow Press, 2020. 272 pages. Softcover. $22.95.

By opening his latest novel with a swastika flag being hoisted into the air and a Nazi salute, "Seig Heil," proclaiming victory, Charles Dodd White warns us the stakes are high in the story to come—and he doesn't disappoint. How Fire Runs is White's fourth novel, and in it he expertly intersects race, social justice, small town politics, community, and environmental destruction. A resident of Knoxville, White utilizes his understanding of east Tennessee to portray a contemporary fictionalized Elizabethton, a town tucked into the bounds of the tri-cities of Johnson City, Kingsport, and Bristol. [End Page 98]

The first parts of the novel prepare the reader for a confrontation between Democrats Kyle Pettus, Gerald Pickens, Frank Farmer, and their allies, with Gavin Noon and his neo-Nazi followers. While they eventually clash ideologically in the debate between Farmer and Noon in the lead-up to the election for a seat on the county commission, this is not the climax of the story. This expert maneuver on White's part—one that left me wondering, Well, what now?—creates necessary chaos and builds a palpable sense of anxiety and suspense that drives the story through destruction and to its resolution. Though literary fiction tends to prefer characterization over plot, sometimes dragging the story along, White shines in his ability to maintain the story's momentum while developing the characters to their full portraiture.

The characters populating How Fire Runs represent a wide range of morality and ideology. Noon, leader of the "Little Europe" neo-Nazi compound, is irredeemably reprehensible. His physicality and sense of style, often involving suits and fedoras, make him a caricature of a villain, almost laughably so—except men like him do exist in the world, and the ideology they espouse is even more dangerous. Pettus is the obvious protagonist of the novel, but he is not Noon's antithesis. Farmer, one of few Black members of the community, is the closest this novel gets to a moral good. While he is dragged begrudgingly into the political arena by Pettus, Pickens, and other Carter County politicians who want to keep Noon out of power, Farmer ultimately decides to run against Noon out of a sense of responsibility and protection for his community, despite the fear of retribution from the white supremacists in the county, especially Noon's neo-Nazis. The diverse beliefs espoused by the characters, as well as the actions they take in lieu of these views, cultivate the true-to-life quality of the novel. [End Page 99]

While White does not allow Noon a chance for redemption, Jay Harrison, one of Noon's initial followers, is ultimately redeemed. Throughout the novel, the reader is given a glimpse into Harrison's past and how he gets caught up in white supremacy through the need to survive his prison sentence. In a subtle way through Harrison's backstory, White critiques the way in which the prison system's cruelty strips people of their identities, sometimes contributing to the spread and exacerbation of violent, organized white supremacy. As Harrison's relationship with former love interest Emmanuel, a Black artist and marijuana dealer, grows, he begins to find the sense of self that prison stripped from him. It is this internalization that pushes him to leave Little Europe, resurrecting "Jay" and rejecting who he was as "Harrison."

White's storytelling blends evocative imagery and language with pithy directness and honesty. This balance contributes to his ability to present contemporary Appalachia with clear reverence without ignoring or excusing the problematic parts of the region's culture that would allow groups like Little Europe to take root and thrive. The only time I found myself questioning the novel's plot was when the conservatives on the county commission band with Pettus and Pickens to stop Noon ascending to power. Certainly, there are conservatives who would act likewise, but given the increasing tribalism of two-party politics, it took more effort to believe.

As is often true of Appalachian literature...


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pp. 98-101
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