Book Review: Wildfire: A Novel
Mary Pauline Lowry
Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., July 24, 2015
by Mary Pauline Lowry
Skyhorse Publishing, 304 pp., $24.95
Every summer, wildfire wields its double-edged sword. Roaring through forests and lives, the flames leave a charred trail of destruction, but never without the promise of regrowth. Released in October 2014, Wildfire, the debut novel by Austin native Mary Pauline Lowry, is, on the surface, the story of a lone woman on a wildland firefighter crew. As the pages turn, layers peel back revealing sharp social commentary and an examination of what it means to be a woman in the heat of battle – both in a male-dominated field and during personal turmoil.
An orphan suddenly at age 12, main character Julie learns early that she can escape grief with fire, much to her high-society grandmother's frustration. That penchant for pyromania, plus snarled relationships and an eating disorder, lands adult Julie on her way to the mountains of Colorado to join a Hotshot firefighting crew. Lowry herself spent time on a Hotshot crew, lending an authenticity to the book. Wildfire weaves the intricacies of people living minute-by-minute in death-defying scenarios and very close quarters. Crude remarks and blatant sexism run rampant, and Julie's efforts to prove her worth – boogers, nasty comebacks, and eventually, a feat of heroic strength – will resonate with anyone who has felt like an outsider in passionate pursuit of a goal. Her haunted past continues to trip her, until she begins to accept vulnerability as fact – not because she is female, but because she is human. "Looking up now and again at the forest burning hot alongside me, I realized the enormity of my coup. I was not supposed to be here, certainly."
The reader's full immersion is a testament to Lowry's skill for sentences laced with vivid imagery and a willingness for honest expression. The storyline, peppered with (occasionally unpolished) emotive qualities, offers love stories – familial, platonic, and romantic – that somewhat pale next to the lush and entertaining language of the rowdy fire line, but a handful of powerful scenes will leave the reader gasping for breath right alongside Wildfire's characters. It is truly nature itself, both human and elemental, that drives the fast-paced book. It's a fox running through a secured fire line, tail ablaze, and the wide eyes of the soon-to-be victims. It's the crinkle of a frantically deployed emergency shelter and the smell of singed hair. It's the bitter taste of secrets and bile, bubbling up to expose scars and incite confrontations. Wildfire is metaphoric, educational, and fun as hell to read.