When Gerald is three, his mother, a drug addict, leaves him alone one time too often and he accidentally sets the apartment on fire. His mother is imprisoned for negligence, he goes to the hospital, and thereafter lives with "Aunt Queen," a great-aunt who exercises considerable authority from her wheelchair, and gives him all the love his mother hasn't.

When he is 9, however, his mother returns with a new sister and a man who claims to be the sister's father. They want to take him "home"; Gerald wants to stay with Aunt Queen. The matter is settled unhappily when Aunt Queen dies of a heart attack.

Gerald soon learns to despise his stepfather for his violence and, eventually, for the abuse of his half sister, which she hides out of fear until she's driven to confess it to Gerald in hope of his protection. Their mother remains in denial about that problem as well as her own and her husband's addictions to alcohol and drugs.

Caring for his sister, however, keeps love in Gerald's life. In defending her one last time, the apartment catches fire and his stepfather is killed. As he, his sister, and his mother ride away in the ambulance, a flicker of hope survives in the darkness for another new chapter in family life, this time without violence.


The events of this book are harsh, but true to the circumstances in which many inner-city children grow up. Gerald's character is rendered with sensitivity and acuity; he survives and even thrives in hard circumstances, but never seems overly heroic. The figures of the sister and grandmother also ring true.

The confused and directionless mother and violent stepfather are less developed characters, but their plight is drawn in such a way as to forestall easy judgment and instead to invite recognition that they're all trapped in a system that perpetuates poverty and desperation. Still, the stepfather's behavior is in no way excused, and his death does seem a release into new possibility.

A very useful book both for kids in similar circumstances and for those who might find such circumstances hard to imagine. Comes with discussion questions in the back.


Forged by Fire won the Coretta Scott King Award. It is the second book of a trilogy, the first of which is Tears of a Tiger; the last of the trilogy is Darkness Before Dawn (Simon & Schuster, 2001).



Place Published

New York



Page Count