review: Marla Cantrell
By Anita Shreve | Knopf | 241 pages | $26
Fall of 1947 was devastating for Maine. The state had endured a warm spring foll-owed by 108 consecutive days without rain. By October, all the elements were in place for disaster. From October 13 through October 27, 200 fires consumed a quarter of a million acres of forest and leveled nine towns. Often, the flames, after an attempt to extinguish them, would smolder underground, resurfacing days later. When the toll was taken, nearly 1,300 houses were gone, and 2,500 people were homeless.
Even the USS Little Rock was brought in to help, its 1,000 servicemen fighting the fires so valiantly they saved two towns. The U.S. Navy, Army, and General Electric dropped dry ice into the clouds, an experiment they hoped would bring rain.
In The Stars Are Fire, Anita Shreve tells the fictional story of Grace Holland, a twenty-four-year-old pregnant woman, who is running from the blaze. She takes her two children, rushes to the ocean’s edge, and covers her family with a blanket dipped in the water.
While Grace does all she can to save her children, her husband, Gene, is nowhere to be found. He has gone to fight the fire, believing he and other volunteers can dig a trench big enough to save the town.
Gene did not understand the magnitude of the inferno, the power of it rising up so high it seemed like a dragon come to destroy them all.
When Grace is rescued, she has to face a clutch of loses. Not everyone in her family survives, and her husband is missing. Her house is gone. Her neighborhood. So much of what she loved.
In the months ahead, Grace reinvents herself. She gets a job, learns to drive, searches for and finds her mother. Still, no word of Gene and she suspects he is dead.
In the telling of the story, Shreve weaves heartache and resilience, pain and the power of the human spirit.
She also dives into the heart of Grace’s marriage, uncovering the inner workings of this couple, the effects of Gene’s time in the military. The reader is left to wonder if Grace might be better off without him, if this fire that tore everything apart might be the event that allows her to escape a life that was suffocating her.
While Grace soldiers on, she encounters great kindness, from the doctor who stays by her side all night, listening to her greatest fears, to a concert pianist who offers her the gift of music. And then there’s Grace’s best friend, Rosie, who moves to Nova Scotia after the fire but never abandons her. Rosie writes Grace letters that help pull her through.
The Stars Are Fire is a masterpiece of historical fiction. You will feel as if you know Grace, as if you understand the complexities of that era, and that is what great writing does. It connects us to times and places we might never know. It makes us kinder, better people.