Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Highly Recommended: THE FIRE by Thomas Peacock


The Fire
Written by Thomas Peacock (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe)
Illustrations by Anna Granholm
Published by Black Bears & Blueberries
Published in 2021
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

I'm very happy to add a title to our 2021 Recommended Books list: Thomas Peacock's The Fire. This is my "short and sweet" review. As you may remember, "short and sweet" reviews are not in-depth; they cover four reasons for our decision about a particular book. 

Here's how the publisher, Black Bears & Blueberries, describes The Fire.
This story is a fictionalized account of the Great Fire of 1918 based on an interview of Elizabeth (Betty) Gurno, a Fond du Lac Reservation elder. Betty was a little girl when the fire swept the area. The Fire of 1918 destroyed the city of Cloquet, Minnesota and surrounding communities, including the Fond du Lac Reservation, and resulted in the loss of many lives.

Author Thomas Peacock frames Betty's telling of the story within a later-day classroom scene in Minnesota. Betty has come to her grandchild's classroom to share her memories of the fire. 

First reason to recommend The Fire: It focuses on Indigenous people's experience during a catastrophic event, and joins a fairly small pool of exciting and moving historical fiction picture books told from an Indigenous perspective. In The Fire, Ojibwe oral history is at the center. The author uses some words in Ojibwemowin and refers to Ojibwe traditions (such as offering asemaa, tobacco, to an elder who shares wisdom). 

Second reason: It's timely. Wildland fires have affected communities around the country in recent years. Children are wondering how such fires can happen, how people survive them, and what happens afterward. Young readers may want to do further research about the Great Fire of 1918, using sources like the National Weather Service article and a dedicated page on the Library of Congress Web site. 

Third reason: The illustrations amplify the storytelling. There's plenty of drama in the pictures. Burning boards fly through the air; dozens of animals join the people in the river as the fire rages. But there are also some important, more subtle touches. Look closely at the page that shows Betty's grandparents warning her family about the fire. The hazy trees and yellowish sky behind the horse and buggy aren't just meant to be pretty. That's the smoke, already drifting into Fond du Lac, a silent warning. 

Fourth reason: The story manages to locate modest, honest hope and affirmation in the aftermath of the disaster. Readers learn that no Ojibwe people died, but "more than four hundred fifty of our non-Native neighbors were lost in the fire," and several non-Native towns burned to the ground. (For comparison, I checked the estimated death toll of the Chicago Fire of 1871 -- around 300.) Grandma Betty recounts that her grandmother's home escaped the fire, and she shared what food she had with other Fond du Lac families, most of whom had lost everything. I love the final words of Grandma Betty's storytelling: "We help each other. That is what we do." (It reminds me of the values behind Richard Van Camp's little board book, May We Have Enough to Share.)

I also love that when Betty ends her storytelling, the children line up to hug her. Maybe that's a classroom custom. But I think it also shows that the children are moved by this elder's story of the trauma she and their community endured, and they are caring for her in their way, years afterward.

The Fire is a valuable book to have on your shelves, and to share with children you know.