Review of Barriers Burned Away; remembering the1871 Chicago Fire

A visit to Chicago not long after the Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871–151 years ago today–touched the heart of the author, Edward Payson Roe, and inspired him to write this novel, published in 1872.

Diorama of 1871 Chicago Fire – Chicago History Museum, Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois

He seems to have asked himself:

How would people respond in a crisis that affected a community regardless of social rank, and how would the tragedy change them and their community, for better or worse?

…and…

How important are some of our typical pursuits—pleasure, popularity, recognition, wealth, and entertainment–compared to a day-by-day inner awareness of our value as a human being, our purpose on this earth, a sense of peace, and a realistic, solid basis of hope and security?

This is quite an extraordinary novel, and I LOVED IT. So much so that I now have this and several other E.P. Roe novels on my Kindle. (And I have given my used hardcover copy to a dear friend who loved the last 19th century novel I gave her!)

It is a detailed book about one of the things in our lives that we don’t necessarily focus on, but which is one of the most important: our spiritual life.

In this story a young man, Dennis, needs to leave his struggling family so he can make money to support them. He leaves his quiet rural area and moves to Chicago, one of the largest cities in the U.S. in 1871, when the story takes place.

Dennis and Christine work together at an art gallery, and have similar interests in art, including creating their own paintings. She and her father (the owner) are from a very wealthy European family, and look down on the newly hired young man with the worn-out clothes. Naturally Dennis is frustrated by that, but his value system isn’t based on popularity and people-pleasing, and he can still be relatively content at work while he earns enough to live on.

He has a heart of gold, and if he finds someone in his neighborhood or place of work that he can help, he pours his heart into it. So even in the unfriendly city he is never without genuine friends that support him. 

Perhaps this is the kind of art on their art gallery walls?
(Frederick Walker, The Old Farm Garden, 1871, public domain, picryl.com)

In time, Christine and the others at work are impressed by Dennis’s kindnesses, and the way Dennis respects himself. They notice he doesn’t compromise his values by mistreating them, regardless of how disrespectfully they treat him.

When Christine pretends to be falling in love with him in order to use him for her own purposes, Dennis calls her on it, scolding her for her rudeness and manipulation. It may be the first time in her life that she hears the truth about herself. She is further frustrated by her artistic limitations, seeming to be unable to paint an authentic expression of love on her canvas. She takes to heart Dennis’s words: “The stream cannot rise higher than its fountain.”

Dennis becomes seriously ill and is away from work for a while. During that time Christine realizes how much she cares for him, but her artistic and social ambitions take precedence over a relationship.

Then… the fire rages through Chicago with complete disregard to social status, providing a crucible for burning up the dross in many lives.

Chicago in Flames, by Currier and Ives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Where to find the book

The fact that it is so prevalent online attests to its past and present popularity.

You can read it for free, or download it in various formats, at Gutenberg.org, By the Fireplace, and Free Pages. You can buy hardcover and softcover versions (including facsimile reprints) at the usual places, such as Amazon and AbeBooks, for very reasonable prices.

Here is a short blurb about the book on an excellent website about the Chicago Fire, which includes a sample chapter (caution: spoiler).

Next post…

In my next post I will share what I’ve found about the Chicago Fire, the extraordinary talents and interests of author E.P. Roe, and more!

Happy reading!