Friday, May 19, 2017

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

Reviewed by Brenda G.

Grace is a 24-year old wife in a loveless marriage with two small children, who finds herself pregnant with a third. The story opens with a wet spring that is followed by a lingering drought of a summer and fall. Nature provides the setting for the first major event of the story, a wildfire that occurred in 1947, burning through eastern Maine to the coast. The men are called away to build firebreaks, which the fast-moving fire jumps as it moves on toward the shore.

Awakened by her young daughter’s screaming horror of the approaching fire, now only a block away, Grace is determined to save herself and her children. Taking the children and little else, she heads directly for the ocean. There she finds her friend and neighbor Rosie with a canoe and her own children. Grace takes charge, directing Rosie to shove the canoe out into the water, wet her own hair and that of the children, and finally to dig into the sand at the water’s edge, remaining partially submerged, to save themselves and their children. It works! But it is Maine in October, and they are not found until the following morning. 

After recovering from hypothermia and a resultant miscarriage at five months, Grace must learn to cope on her own. No one knows the whereabouts of her husband Gene or if he survived the fire. She has two young children to feed and house. All insurance papers were lost in the fire, and she knows nothing about the insurance they held. Friends take her in initially. She must learn to drive, find a job, and find a place for her mother and children. She proves to be impressive and resourceful, now that she is on her own.

The story cannot help but remind one of the wildfire in the Gatlinburg area in 2016 and how rapidly it spread. The 1947 wildfire in Maine claimed 16 lives; Gatlinburg’s fire claimed 14. Heroic tales of escape and survival emerged from both fires, as did tragic tales of loss. Though this tale is fictitious, the setting and the real wildfire provide a quick point of relevance for area residents, a touchstone of a sort.

The writing style is similar to that of the late Maeve Binchy, being rather spare but wholly satisfying. Shreve writes from third person limited, with Grace as the main character and narrator. Grace, who finds vast reserves of strength and resolve once she is forced from her traditional role of a dutiful homebody by the impact of a wildfire, is a satisfactory and convincing heroine.

Shreve, Anita. The Stars Are Fire. New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 241 pages.

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