Our Lady of the Angels



On December 1st, 1958, Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago caught fire. It claimed the lives of 92 children and three nuns and left more critically injured.
On November 1st, 2016, Elizabeth Kern published Fire Angels, a fictional account of the days leading up to the fire and the aftermath. The back cover reads as follows:


“It’s a story of arson; of bravery by parents, nuns, firefighters, and medical professionals; of a falsely accused janitor; of a cover-up within the Catholic Church; of a judge who, in having to determine the juvenile arsonist’s fate, is torn between loyalty to his church and justice; of a tight-knit community changed forever; and of two survivors who fall in love. Fire itself is also a central character in this story, a cunning observer that comes to life whenever a flame is lit.”


Although Elizabeth Kern was not a student during the time of the fire, the event still hits close to home for her. “Many of the ninety-two children who perished in the Our Lady of the Angels fire were my age, and I identified with them,” she said. She was also living in the area, approximately three miles east of the school. It was a tragic event that was always in the back of her mind, and after reading the non-fiction account of the fire, To Sleep with the Angels, she found her next book topic.
She started outlining Fire Angels after having a conversation with John Kuenster, one of the authors of To Sleep with the Angels, and spent a year on researching the topic more in depth. “Not only did my memories as a child come rushing back, but now as an adult and an author, I understood the fire in its complexity and also saw elements of a gripping story that I might be able to tell as historical fiction,” she said.  
The novel not only creates a realistic play-by-play of each moment in a third person aspect but takes on a unique first person voice. Elizabeth said, “The first paragraph of the book came easily: ‘There was this fat-faced kid who loved me. Not the normal attraction a kid has when he sees me in the flick of a match or in a candle on a birthday cake. This kid loved me too much. I saw worship in his watery blue eyes.’”
By creating a voice for an actual flame, – “an entity that’s insatiable, duplicitous, haughty, evil, cocky and caustic” –  emotions meant for people become translated into this entity. The reader goes through sadness and anger and disappointment just through the eyes of the flames alone. It is truly captivating.
The novel is also very conscious of the topic and is as fact driven as it is fictitious. There is much to discuss and debate as this is a horrifying topic that was never truly resolved, but this novel remains delicate to its backstory. “Since memories of their tragedy are still raw among some survivors, I tried to be sensitive to their feelings,” Elizabeth said. “This was especially true in creating the voice of fire, for fire was their killer.”
Since the tragedy of the Our Lady of the Angels fire, there is one positive outlook that came from it. Improved and more heavily enforced safety standards were created within schools, despite Our Lady of the Angels being legally in compliance with the fire safety law of that time and passing an inspection mere weeks beforehand.  
A flicker of a flame and a bit of curiosity is all it took for tragedy to strike at Our Lady of the Angels. Fire Angels perfectly balances the facts and the fiction and creates an alluringly heartbreaking story.