On Fire

REsource Links june 2013 (vol 18, #5)
Blackstone Village is all but evacuated due to nearby forest fires when 14-year old Matti finds a young man with strange bums and amnesia stumbling out of the woods. Matti has Tourette's syndrome and has a hard time making friends, so when she promises to help the troubled young man, she has no intention of breaking her promise. The man, whom Matti nicknames Dan, remembers nothing of his past, but claims to have seen demons in the fire.

The plot and characters beautifully mirror The Divine Comedy and Dante's journey in Inferno, without simply becoming a modem YA retelling. The characters’ awareness of the echoes of the classic text in their lives adds textures of magic realism to the story and Linden masterfully treats related subject matter of identity and mental illness with sensitivity. Matti’s temporary guardian, the retired English teacher Mrs. Stoa, guides readers in this connection explaining, “These old stories don't take us over . . . But they are in the world. And sometimes we grab onto them” (p.51). The first-person narration is expertly split between Matti’s realistic viewpoints and Dan's confused perspective and hellish visions.

A previous knowledge of The Divine Comedy is not necessary to appreciate this novel. Readers who enjoy a psychological mystery or magic realism will be easily engaged in On Fire. — Beth Wilcox


Thematic Links: Social Issues; Mental Illness; Identity

Goodreads, April 25, 2013

I was drawn to this layered story very quickly. You could read the book just for the plotting, just to find out what happens next, and that would be satisfying enough. But there’s so much more going on.
We’re given glimpses of life with mental illness; life with Tourette Syndrome; life after your world literally burns down around d your ears. The author weaves together all these experiences into a remarkable tale of mystery, of resilience, and of the building of family.

This is a story I expect will percolate in my head for quite a while.
Highly recommended. For thoughtful readers Grade 9 and up

— Stephanie Gregorich, Ex. Director, Young Alberta Books Society

CM Magazine, Volume XIX Number 41. . . .June 21, 2013

Fourteen-year-old Matti Iverly's small village is overcome by forest fires. She stays behind in her untouched family home with minimal supervision provided by her father's friend, Marsh Dunegan, and a retired teacher, Mrs. Stoa, while her father, Frank, is off fighting the fire. Then a disoriented young man stumbles out of the surrounding wilderness, and Matti takes it upon herself to help him get well. "Dan", as she calls him, can't recall who he is or why he's on the mountain. As Matti and Mrs. Stoa are evacuated to the nearby town of Kingman when the fire sweeps closer, Dan takes off for a deserted native village, led there by a local guide, Virgil. Later, in a psychotic state, Dan is rescued and taken to Metal Springs, the local mental health hospital, where Matti and her father Frank visit him and attempt to identify him by matching his fingerprints to a database. Except that the fingerprints they use are those of another patient, Howard, whom they also befriend. Through medication and rest, Dan slowly recovers enough to come to work for the village cleaning up the fire debris.

Matti has the strong, self-deprecating voice of the bright loner that will amuse students. She has Tourette's Syndrome, and her methods of coping with her tics and hand movements, not to mention her intelligence and her fierce determination, will earn their admiration. Matti seems much younger than fourteen, not knowing, for example, what a cheerleader is, and being unaware of the ramifications of some of the social situations in which she finds herself. She thinks she can look after Dan by herself, for example.

Secondary characters, like Mrs. Stoa, Marsh, Virgil and Frank, are quirky individuals who are very supportive of Matti, respecting her personality and her disability. Her father is gentle and kind, supportive and helpful in Matti's search for Dan's past. Mrs. Stoa's sharp, witty tongue will amuse the intended reader, but her references to Dante (and the author's naming of the characters Virgil and Beatrice) will go right over their heads. Marsh, who answers many of Matti's day-to-day questions, is firm and patient in spite of his own past mental health issues, letting Matti have just enough rope to develop her social conscience but not allowing her to come into any real danger. Virgil plays the role of the handsome, easy-going, irresponsible guide without a care in the world.

The story alternates between Matti's first person narrative and Dan's story told in the third person, and then later as he is recovering in the first person. The first person accounts allow both Matti and Dan to expose their internal thoughts while the third person section highlights Dan's experience on Cato Island with Virgil and his relatives.

Secondary characters, like Mrs. Stoa, Marsh, Virgil and Frank, are quirky individuals who are very supportive of Matti, respecting her personality and her disability. Her father is gentle and kind, supportive and helpful in Matti's search for Dan's past. Mrs. Stoa's sharp, witty tongue will amuse the intended reader, but her references to Dante (and the author's naming of the characters Virgil and Beatrice) will go right over their heads. Marsh, who answers many of Matti's day-to-day questions, is firm and patient in spite of his own past mental health issues, letting Matti have just enough rope to develop her social conscience but not allowing her to come into any real danger. Virgil plays the role of the handsome, easy-going, irresponsible guide without a care in the world.

The fire devastation is vivid and the tension and depression high. The evacuation experience clearly describes the unhappy, uneasy, bed-on-the-floor-of-the-school-gym uncomfortable days as the fire victims long to return home. Matti's next school year is in limbo as her school has burned down. No one is sure where they will live.

The dialogue rings true – sharp and witty – while it advance the plot. Only in the last section, as Matti and her father look for Dan's identity and Dan slowly gets better, does the action lag. The mystery of to whom the fingerprints belong isn't enough to hold the reader's interest, but Dan and Matti's reunion with Howard is a joyful, satisfying ending.

Recommended.

Review by Joan Marshall.

*** /4

Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.

Saskatoon StarPhoenix, June 8, 2013

In On Fire, 14-year-old Matilda (Mattie) Iverly discovers an amnesic young man wandering out of the heart of wildfire country who remembers nothing about his life. Over the course of time, as his mental illness is treated, his past returns - first in flashbacks and finally in full chronology — and it isn't a happy one. We see him in alternating chapters told through Mattie's first-person narrative and then from Dan's own third-person perspective.

Mattie's character is an interesting one and she is one of the few protagonists in young adult literature to have Tourette's syndrome. While Tourette's is evident in many of her interactions with others, it is not used as a single defining character trait, and for this reason her characterization is dynamic and fresh. Readers unfamiliar with the condition will get an authentic sense of how Tourette's feels from the inside through Mattie's descriptions - inclusions that are useful and not overdone. For example, she suggests that a tic feels like a sneeze that can be delayed, but that ultimately must eventually be released.

"A tic," I said, "is like a twitch or a spasm. Some people with T.S. show it in their muscles. I mostly have vocal tics ..."
"As long as you don't start swearing," Mrs. Stoa said. "I draw the line there."
"Most people with Tourette's don't burst out with four-letter words," I told her.
"If you don't know any better than that, you should start reading hardcover books that are more educational."

Here Mattie is remarking on Mrs. Stoa's immersion in what we soon learn is a paperback copy of Dante Alighieri's classic title The Divine Comedy. Impressed by the older woman's discussion of Dante's travels through the underworld to save his soul, Mattie remembers this author when trying to find a name for the compelling stranger who is covered with blood and dirt. Dante thus becomes Dan, while the book remains as an allegory for the journey Dan himself is making back to health.

One of Linden's earlier books, Shimmerdogs, was a silver medallist for the 2008 Governor General's Award for Children's Literature. It, along with her first title, Peacekeepers, mirror the strong skills in characterization and sensory-rich narrative found in On Fire; this new book is a solid literary product predictive of further awards.

— Beverley Brenna