Published August 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
"There isn’t anything in the world that hurts like a burn.” No one knows the pain of a fire more than the women of the Keegan/O’Reilly clan. Kathleen Donohoe’s stunning debut novel brings to life seven unsentimental, wry, and evocative portraits of women from a family of firefighters.
When we meet Norah — the first member of her family to move from Ireland to New York — she is a mother of three, contemplating her husband’s casket as his men give him a full fireman’s funeral, and faced with a terrible choice. Norah's mother-in-law, Delia, is stoic and self-preserving. Her early losses have made her keep her children close and her secrets closer. Eileen, Delia’s daughter, adopted from Ireland and tough-as-nails, yet desperate for a sense of belonging, is one of the first women firefighters in New York. It is through her eyes that we experience 9/11, blindsided by the events of that terrible day along with her.
They say (whoever "they" is) to write about what you know. Raised in a family of Irish-American New York firefighters, Kathleen Donohoe took that advice to heart. Her experience in that world shows. She understands the fear, the pride, the strain on families, the bonds in the community.
In Ashes of Fiery Weather, we get the stories of the Devlin/Keegan/O'Reilly family through six generations as told through the points of view of seven women. This is one of those books that I requested based on the description (okay, partly on the cover) and then forgot what it was about when I started reading it. When I did, wow. Family drama. Irish immigrant firefighters. Dead young father. Yep, I was all in with Norah's story.
Not all of the stories grabbed me as deeply and sometimes, with 20 or so main characters, things got confusing (even with a family tree at the front of the book). Some of that has to do with me having to put the book down for a few weeks for other commitments and losing track of who was who and emotional attachments.
When I picked it up and started reading Eileen's story, I was reading the story of the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11, as seen from the point of view of a firefighter. It is an incredible piece of storytelling, emotional without being maudlin. This is as much the story of the firefighters who survived that day and had to live with the aftermath of losing 343 of their own as it is about those who lost their lives. The desperation, the terrible strain of what those who were digging found, the ash and debris and lack of communication were palpable. In this chapter, it felt like Donohoe really dug down to what it means to be a firefighter. This chapter alone made the book worth reading.
"The press kept pushing the idea that the firefighters ran into the buildings heedless of the danger. That phrase. They guys had been repeating it around the firehouse: I'm going down the basement heedless of the danger. I'm cooking these meatballs heedless of the danger. I'm cleaning these tools heedless of the danger.
In speaking of the courage it took to run into burning buildings, the press made it sound like firefighters didn't give a f^*# about "the danger," whether it came from a smoldering hardware store that looked like an easy job or two skyscrapers hit by airplanes.
But the guys on 9/11 had not died gladly."
"Until recently, though, Eileen had not considered what Sean would have done if he was given the choice of dying at thirty-five or driving out of Brooklyn into a much longer life. Presented with it at twenty years old, he would have gone away. What young guy wouldn't? But suppose it was the night before the fire, when Sean had been a husband for eleven years and a father for ten?
Eileen look now at her niece and nephew, both coming up on thirty, their lives on the courses they'd chosen, or found themselves on. She thought of Brendan and Rose, still starting out, and of Norah, who had planned to stay in New York for a year and ended up spending a lifetime, most of it grieving.
Sean would not have chosen a life without her, a life in which his kids never existed. And he would not have run from the fire that killed him, even if he had been told it would.
The whole job was the pull between knowing you could get killed and thinking you'll always find the way out. Knowing what will happen if you don't. Going in anyway."Donohoe touches on a lot of themes in Ashes of Fiery Weather: family relationships, religion, abuse, poverty, infertility, homosexuality, traditions, immigration. But the overarching theme of this book is missing persons - young sons lost to illness, a husband and father lost to fire, a child given up for adoption, lost parents, a daughter and mother lost to unbelievable tragedy - and the ways people deal with that loss. Some pull in on themselves, others grow a hard shell. Some find new strength, others can never get over the void in their life. Donohoe shows readers all of this and the fallout it can have.