Review: Firebrand by Sarah MacTavish

★★★★½ Firebrand by Sarah MacTavish

Firebrand by Sarah MacTavish is an historical young adult novel centered around the American abolition of slavery in the mid 19th century. Saoirse Callahan emigrated from Ireland with her family and ended up in Texas, where their fortunes may not be any better. When a series of fires crop up all over the state, it’s thought to be the result of a slave rebellion, which may only be rumor, and Saoirse wants to get to the bottom of what’s happening, which may just put her in danger.

In a parallel story, Westleigh Kavanagh, a Pennsylvania abolitionist, is sheltering a runaway slave, and comes upon a journal with secrets that could upend the lives of both the Kavanaghs and the Callahans.

MacTavish has taken a very interesting and entertaining approach with this novel. Though historical fiction, it doesn’t read like an historical narrative, but like a contemporary young adult novel. Some readers may find the book too light on historical detail, but too often in historical fiction the book is weighted with historical research first and story second. Firebrand does not suffer from this problem whatsoever.

Which isn’t to say the book is lacking in period detail, because it isn’t, but this isn’t the book’s primary focus. From the opening scene, it’s clear that this could be a story set in any era, which really draws a reader into the story and the characters, as there’s limited distance between the modern day and the characters’ experience. This is core to the book’s overall theme – though there are obviously issues that are specific to the time period, there are also many issues that apply to today as well. History does have a way of repeating itself, and so the book transports the reader to a time that seems all too plausible for today’s contentious world.

Switching off points of view between Saoirse and Westleigh, the novel gives a broad-picture point of view of the north and south during slavery. This is definitely more Saoirse’s book – but that is perhaps because she’s the more interesting character, or at least her sequence of the book has higher stakes. Westleigh is certainly engaging on his own, and the chapters are short enough that readers won’t feel the drag if they’re less connected to one or other character, but Saoirse seems to be written with a different electricity than her counterpart, yet they are equally important to each other’s story.

One could say that the similarities that bind the lives of those in the north and south in this novel also bind the present to the past. There are many issues in the book that crop up in any era – racism, scapegoating, alcoholism, poverty – and this is core to why the book doesn’t read exactly like historical fiction. Entirely to the book’s credit, it is making a vital point about today’s world in the parallels it has with a difficult past, while also transporting readers to a time in history.

The first novel in the Firebrand series, Firebrand is a well-drawn and important read. For those who are unaccustomed to reading historical fiction, and want a young adult novel in a unique setting with emotionally high stakes, Firebrand is a moving, expertly written, and entertaining work of young adult fiction.

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