For several weeks now, Missoula has been going in and out of a fog of smoke. At times it has appeared as if we are in a bubble, detached from the surrounding mountains, highways, and rivers. But the feeling brought on by the overhead coverage isn’t the cozy feeling of fog rolling off the ocean, when you always know that as the day progresses, or the front moves on, sunny skies will return. Here in Montana with fires burning in every direction, there’s no weather cycle to inform us as to when the haze of ashy air will clear out for good. Red eyes and difficulty breathing are symptoms with no end in sight. As the AP declares the Bitterroot Valley “ground zero” for the worst fire season in 50 years, Missoulians find themselves in awe: of the fires, and the women and men who fight to keep them at bay.
Between official evacuations and natural fear, very few people actually get to see a fire line and what goes on behind the smoke in order to ensure the safety of homeowners and their property. While fiction is known for its romanticizing tendencies, Christine Andreae’s latest book, Smoke Eaters, gives an exciting, perhaps informative, look at what happens when the media goes away and firefighters go to work.
Mattie McCulloch was born to fight fires. Growing up on stories of fire heroics from both her mother and father who were firefighters in southwestern Montana, Mattie barged into the male-dominated culture and stayed long enough to see herself rise through the ranks of high command. Now with her own legacy of firefighting (her son Jimmy is in his second year as a Millville Hotshot), Mattie is named Incident Commander of the summer’s largest fire. Justice Peak has gone up in flames and it’s not dying down anytime soon, threatening private property owners throughout the valley, including a militant nudist colony. Brought onto the job after several explosive racial incidents threatened to divide the fire camp, Mattie must balance fire strategy with human relations strategy, as there is no shortage of peers or underlings wishing to see the first female Incident Commander become the last one.
Woven into the already tense narrative are the journal entries of a sadistic misogynist who has a thing for fire games and appears to have quite a bit of influence among the high command. His writings revolve around one of Jimmy’s company, Cat Carew, a wild woman and fierce firefighter. She apparently has spurned the mystery man’s advances, and now he wants her, and anyone she’s associated with, to pay. What results is arson, murder, and a grand dethroning in the works for Mattie.
In a story riddled with innate suspense, Andreae deftly weaves in Mattie’s emotional struggles to come to terms with her son’s disregard for her, her own poor decisions in her personal life, and the fine line a woman in a male-dominated world must walk. There is much at stake in this book, and it doesn’t all have to do with the thousands of acres of public and private property being lost to the fire. Andreae does, however, have quite the eye for fire; her descriptions of the sight and sound of the deadly monster bring you to the front lines, soot on your face and blisters on your hands. Clearly Andreae has done her research, both on fires and on southwestern Montana, where she spends her summers. She has crafted what could have been, in other hands, simply another suspense thriller, into a nuanced story of what sacrifice really means when the one passion in your life is the one thing society won’t permit you to have.