Jordan Bradt: I discovered another great find from the library’s used bookroom: FLASH FIRE by Caroline B. Cooney. I liked the look of it because I usually enjoy her books, but the cover also hooked me. Fire licks at the sidelines while a boy and girl run down the center of a road. The curly-haired boy has his backpack and his camera. The girl carries a shirt, a school binder, a kitten, and a trophy.
As soon as I started reading this book, I knew I would have to share it with you. California is the setting; the book’s copyright is 1995, so I assume it takes place then. They mention email, and I don’t remember having email back then, but I was seven, so I liked dolls more than sending electronic mail.
Danna is young girl living in a ritzy neighborhood. Parts of Los Angeles, a different area than hers, are on fire. Danna is safe, but she wants excitement, so she wishes for the fire. She wants to ride her cats out to safety. Yes, I think that’s what the confusing paragraph stated. Then, there’s her brother, Hall, who is out swimming even though the ashes in the air make it hard to breathe. I bet that’s good for his lungs. Their parents are screenwriters, but Hall wants to help mentally/psychologically damaged children. He’s afraid that career won’t be appropriate. Right now he’s helping the neighbors’ four-year-old “son,” a little boy adopted from overseas. He doesn’t react to things well, so his new family dislikes him. They also have issues with the nanny, who ignores him to run off with the family money and cars. They also have a maid who sold herself to get to America and smokes a lot. Continuing through the neighborhood, we meet Beau and his little sister, Elisabeth. Her mother is horrified by everything about her and constantly makes fun of her. Beau is pretty unmemorable, apart from craving attention from his dad. Oh, and then there is the son who’s ashes are kept in a box on the mantle (I think. They’re somewhere in the house haunting the living half-brother). We also meet (as if we don’t have enough characters to keep track of) a disgruntled guard who leaves his post without caring if the gate opens, the fire itself, and tourists who want to watch the “big” houses burn. I actually enjoyed getting into the fire’s “mind” because it was a different perspective than in most stories.
Spoiler alert: Although it was a little slow in coming – most of the story is set up for when Danna’s neighborhood burns – eventually the fire does reach them. The maid, Elony, grabs the “damaged” little boy. Beau and Elisabeth escape in a car. Danna saves the horses, but breaks her leg, so Hall carries her and her box of kittens. Beau and Elisabeth appear in their car, so Danna and Hall get in, along with Elony and little Geoffrey – and the kittens, of course, who get loose and scatter around the car. Beau realizes he can’t leave his brother’s ashes behind, so he flees from the car to go back into the mansion. Hall is forced to drive away to save everyone else, even though Elisabeth panics. Eventually, Elisabeth recovers enough that she and Elony pray for Beau, and she wants one of the kittens. The author expertly describes Beau’s thought process as he dies of smoke inhalation. She also describes how his house melts around him. Yeah, he doesn’t make it. Beau had been my favorite of the characters because he’d seemed the realest.
We’re now at the end of the book. The tourists stealing from everyone are caught by the police. The fire has more or less moved on. I had difficulty picturing the scene where Hall drives to meet the people. Where was the fire? What did the surroundings look like? Beau’s parents are there; his dad hitched a ride with a trucker and his mom ran. Realizing Beau is gone, the mom breaks down in hysterics and has to be tranquilized. The dad tells Elisabeth he loves her, decides to take in Elony so she can be Elisabeth’s friend, and buys everyone ice cream from the ice cream truck. Yes, there is an ice cream truck here at this site of fire (or whatever this setting is) and yes, the dad realizes his son is dead so he buys them ice cream to eat.
Some aspects of this book reminded me of a Judy Blume novel, but I rate it a lot higher than anything I’ve read by her. FLASH FIRE involved character development (gasp) and vivid descriptions of fires in California. I couldn’t decide what rating to give it on GoodReads, since parts were good and parts were outrageous. At first I debated on three stars, due to the mixed feelings, but it did keep me reading past midnight since I needed to know what happened next. Then, I though four stars, but the story had stuck with me. It made me look around my house and think about people who lose everything in flash fires. Their houses didn’t just burn. They melted. It wasn’t just the house, either. It was the yard, the outbuildings, the tennis courts… Okay, I don’t have tennis courts. Still, personal possessions don’t mean anything if you lose your life, so I began cleaning out things I don’t want anymore. I ended up granting the novel five stars because it has, in a way, changed my life.