Arts & Culture » Lit

Burning Book

Idaho writers explore personal, cultural views of fire


How many words for "fire" do Idahoans have? A moment's reflection yields a handful. There are no neutral words for fire, even "fire" itself. Its synonyms carry their own connotations: flame, blaze, conflagration, burn, flare, inferno. These and more crop up in the essay collection, Forged in Fire.

Written by Idaho writers and edited by University of Idaho professors Mary Clearman Blew and Phil Druker, these provocative writings range from working the front lines of a smokejumper crew to trying to heat a ramshackle home with a kitchen stove to coming to terms with the end of a marriage like "the joining of fire and water." Some barely mention fire at all; others talk about almost nothing else. Most acknowledge the potential benefits of fire in various settings, including forests-but none are exactly comfortable with it.

If there is a theme to these uniformly excellent pieces, it is that fire can be affected, sometimes directed and frequently extinguished, but that none of these can be mistaken for control. Fire, these essays seem to say, was not considered an elemental force by our ancestors on a whim; it is a living, acting force in the universe and at its greatest, a thing of awe, majesty and fear.

The most potent aspect of fire, it's suggested in these essays, is that its effects, like the written word in Horace Axtell and Margo Aragon's essay on Nez Perce memories, "It Begins with Fire," live on after the flames themselves have passed by. Whether it's the scarred legs of the narrator in Robert Coker Johnson's "What I Know of Fire," or the poignant memories of a family in poverty in Susan Glave's wrenching "Trash Burner," the authors remind us that fire stands apart from the other elements. It warms the body, but the threat of scars and pain is always close at hand. It brings life by consuming the old and clearing the way for the new.

Ironically, it could be said that Forged in Fire suffered from a metaphorical fire of its own; originally intended to be a University of Idaho Press publication, it was caught in the spontaneous combustion of spending cuts. After the U of I Press shut down, the publication was then taken up by the University of Oklahoma Press. The troubled history of the collection has had no effect on its quality. The styles-journalistic pieces, impressionistic prose, fragments-are eclectic. So like the fires at the heart of these works, there's much to warm our readerly hands on.