Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Book Review: 'Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation' by Robert W. Fieseler

Tinderbox by Robert W. Fieseler
‘THE FRENCH QUARTER was a beehive of merriment that hazy evening’

Massachusetts author Robert W. Fieseler earned his degrees in English from the University of Michigan and in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He worked for the now defunct Borders Bookstore. He is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. He writes for The Big Roundtable, The Atlantic and Columbia Journal, Narratively, and elsewhere. He and his partner live in Boston. TINDERBOX makes his first published book.

In his preface Robert describes the milieu in which the extraordinary tragedy of the fire in the gay bar The Upstairs Lounge in 1973 took place, noting that only sine the 2016 Pulse fire gained such public sentiment has the tragedy of 1973 even surfaces: the ‘closeted’ gay population suffered in silence over the tragedy. ‘The closet grew to function as a governing institution for nonheterosexual life in twentieth-century America, which explains precisely how a makeshift bar like the Up Stairs Lounge could burn to its foundations and, in so doing, disappear from memory. The closet had enough power to eat it up. This framework, by historic reflection, helps to illustrate how a gunman’s slaughter of innocents in Orlando could no longer be silenced in the same way: by the second decade of the twenty-first century, the closet no longer prevailed as the governing institution for gay life. Something had irrevocably changed, and, true to the undulations of history, someone had died to change it. This book, then, is about those generations who battered their heads against padded walls and fell so that events like the Up Stairs Lounge might be known and
aligned with America’s larger civil rights story.’

Thirty two people died in The Upstairs Lounge fire and only now, with Roberts very fine book, are we privy to all the details of that incident and the progress in the gay liberation concept since that time. As the synopsis clearly states, ‘An essential work of American civil rights history, Tinderbox mesmerizingly reconstructs the 1973 fire that devastated New Orleans’ subterranean gay community. Buried for decades, the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy has only recently emerged as a catalyzing event of the gay liberation movement. In revelatory detail, Robert W. Fieseler chronicles the tragic event that claimed the lives of thirty-one men and one woman on June 24, 1973, at a New Orleans bar, the largest mass murder of gays until 2016. Relying on unprecedented access to survivors and archives, Fieseler creates an indelible portrait of a closeted, blue- collar gay world that flourished before an arsonist ignited an inferno that destroyed an entire community. The aftermath was no less traumatic―families ashamed to claim loved ones, the Catholic Church refusing proper burial rights, the city impervious to the survivors’ needs―revealing a world of toxic prejudice that thrived well past Stonewall. Yet the impassioned activism that followed proved essential to the emergence of a fledgling gay movement. Tinderbox restores honor to a forgotten generation of civil-rights martyrs.’

Robert’s book is made more immediate with the photographs and illustrative data that accompany it. This book is a landmark and one that should be read by every person concerned about civil rights – gender, racial, feminist, immigrants – all. Highly recommended.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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