The Wildfire Season

Reviewed: November 30, 2005
By: Andrew Pyper
Publisher: Harper Collins
324 pages, $29.95

I can’t give you a good reason for not having mentioned Andrew Pyper’s latest book sooner than this. I read it last summer during a few of the smokier days we had in Dawson, and after I had had a chance to finally meet the writer at the Young Authors Conference in May. 

I told him then that the people of Ross River probably wouldn’t be very happy with his characterization of their town, but I’ve since discovered that the Ross River in his book is pretty much destroyed by the events of the novel, so it must have been some town in an alternate universe.

Having been very involved with our local emergency measures organization during the fire seasons of 1999 and 2004 here in Dawson, I felt a real affinity for this story right from the opening pages, when the unidentified fire bug starts the blaze which will eventually propel the narrative.

While one would hope that no one would start a fire in order to boost the local economy, there are so many tales dealing with just that in my native Maritime provinces, that I found it quite credible as a plot device.

The human interest portions of the tale focus on the lives of Miles McEwan, his former girlfriend, Alex, and their daughter, Rachel. Miles didn’t know about Rachel until Alex turned up with her in the town. The pair have been seeking Miles as their summer vacation activity ever since Rachel was a baby.

Miles was gone before she was born, having dropped into a black hole of depression after losing a junior worker and a good deal of his own skin, especially on his face, during a terrible fire while he was working summers as a fire fighter in British Columbia. Fleeing all contact with anyone he might know once he was able to get around again, Miles ended up doing the same job that had almost killed him in a place where he thought no one would find him.

The thing is, Miles is good at that job, just as Alex is a good teacher, and really could not have prevented what happened. So when Alex and Rachel find Miles just in time for Ross River to be threatened by a massive forest fire, things get very interesting, very quickly.

There are some other good characters in this story. There’s Margot, a wilderness guide and hunter, and her broken down husband, Wade. There are the members of the fire crew. There’s even a delightful caricature of a rich American and his wife, both of whom should have known better than to go anywhere near the wilderness.

And then there’s the mother grizzly. This is no Walt Disney “Bother Bear” sort of creature. No, she more along the lines of a Charles G.D. Roberts “Do Seek their Meat From God” (check some old grade 8 English anthology) kind of critter, with two cubs to look after, a good sense of self-preservation, and a dedication for vengeance when the need arises.

Toss all these people and that animal into a stressful situation and you’re bound to get a good story out of it: a little adventure, some emotional tension, some self-discovery, some pathos, and every kind of conflict (there are three general varieties) you can imagine.

As much as I enjoyed Lost Girls, I had a much better time with this book. The major protagonists were all people that you could get to like and want to have succeed, even the firebug, whose name you will learn before the story ends, but I’m not going to reveal it here.

The central character of Pyper’s first novel was, in some ways, his own inner demon, the fellow he was afraid he might have become if he’d followed up his education and had turned into a lawyer. As such, he didn’t seem to have a lot of sympathy for that coke snorting, maladjusted fellow - and we didn’t either. The folks in this book are trying to work their way past their character flaws, and take on a certain nobility because of that. It was a pleasure to root for them as they worked through their problems while struggling with each other and with Mother Nature.