In 1922, thirteen-year-old Woodrow Harper’s father dies in a car accident. His father had been a West Point career army officer. Woodrow and his father had not been close. Now his mother has moved the family from Washington, DC, back to Lawton, Oklahoma, to the Harper ancestral home. When Woodrow meets their new neighbor, Senator Crawford, who lost his son in the Great War, he feels an instant kinship that seems to be returned by the Senator. His need for a father parallels the Senator’s need for a son. They bond over a mutual love of painting. He insists that Woodrow meet “the right people” and takes him under his wing. Finally, Woodrow is beginning to feel he is gaining acceptance in his new home. While this is important to him, he also feels an undercurrent of something vaguely unpleasant that he doesn’t understand. There is friction between the black and white communities. Senator Crawford is head of the Ku Klux Klan, and his efforts to indoctrinate Woodrow make the boy uncomfortable. Woodrow believes that if he joins the Klan he can change it from within. He witnesses a Klan punishment of a black man and the taunting of young white boys who have black friends. After this he realizes his plan is futile.
Stanley has written an account of a painful and disgraceful period of American history. In parts, Night Fires is quite thrilling and compelling. Told from Woodrow’s point of view, it is reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird, without the intellectual depth of that masterpiece. This book is appropriate for its target audience of young adults and will appeal to them.