The title comes from the Book of Jeremiah: “…like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I wear myself out holding it in, but I can’t do it any longer.” And Charles Blow’s memoir is his way of not holding it in any longer. Not remaining silent about all that happened to him as he grew up. From his childhood in small town Louisiana where he was sexually abused, suffered the residual traumas of poverty and learned strength from the family that surrounded him with love, Blow writes in poetic detail of a life that must sound familiar to those who also experienced small town Southern life in the 70s.
And yet, as with every life, is unique in it’s specifics. There is danger (lots of guns being waved around somewhat randomly) and difficult choices and utter chaos in the lives he lived among. And yet at his core, Blow seems solid, almost tranquil, even when he is deciding whether to shoot the man who abused him or harm those in college who hazed him.
The New York Times’ review called it “a complex bildungsroman of a memoir” (I had to look it up too!) and, now that I know what bildungsroman means, I agree. Blow’s story is indeed complex, and his book describes and dissects the events that shaped him, that formed his artistic mastery, that gave him the ambition to become a respected opinion columnist for the New York Times.
But mostly it is a book about conflict – good versus evil, right versus wrong. The conflict that Blow feels. The conflict he observes in an America easing out of the Civil Rights Movement and yet, at least from where he comes from, not all that different than before it began.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is almost a prequel to Blow’s columns. In the pages of the Times, he often rants and rages about the horrors of racism, social injustice and especially the difficulties of being a Black man in America – especially when it is personal. I picked up the book because I love his columns. I love the clarity of his insights and the poetry of his prose. Reading the book has given me a richer understanding of context. And, a deeper understanding of its importance.