The Fireman is a satisfyingly long page-turner of a novel by Joe Hill. It features a plague that causes people to spontaneously combust, characters who learn to cope with being sick–they learn how to glow instead of burn–and other characters whose fear causes them to act like monsters, and it shows the power of faith in pop culture icons as diverse as Mary Poppins, John Wyndham, and Martha Quinn (have you ever heard of Martha Quinn? I hadn’t, before reading this novel).
The protagonist is a nurse named Harper Grayson who
“associated English accents with singing teapots, schools for witchcraft, and the science of deduction. This wasn’t, she knew, terribly sophisticated of her, but she had no real guilt about it. She felt the English were themselves to blame for her feelings. They had spent a century relentlessly marketing their detectives and wizards and nannies, and they had to live with the results.”
Harper meets several of the other characters in the course of her work at the hospital, among them Renee, who suffers from the incendiary plague they call “Dragonscale” and loans books to the other patients:
“Why The Bridge of San Luis Rey?” Harper asked.
“Partly because it’s about why inexplicable tragedies occur,” Renee said. “But also it’s short. I feel like most folks want a book they feel like they have time to finish. You don’t want to start A Game of Thrones when you might catch fire all of a sudden. There’s something horribly unfair about dying in the middle of a good story, before you have a chance to see how it all comes out. Of course, I supposed everyone always dies in the middle of a good story, in a sense. Your own story. Or the story of your children. Or your grandchildren. Death is a raw deal for narrative junkies.”
After Harper is infected with Dragonscale, she takes refuge at a formerly abandoned summer camp called Camp Wyndham, where she is told that all she has to do to avoid burning up is to “join the Bright” because “once you’re really one of us—part of the group—the Dragonscale won’t ever hurt you.” Harper’s first reaction is disbelief. She thinks
“such folk had given up their curiosity about the universe for a comforting children’s story. Harper could understand the impulse. She was a fan of children’s stories herself. But it was one thing to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon reading Mary Poppins and quite another to think she might actually turn up at your house to apply for the babysitting job.”
Eventually, however, Harper finds out that the little society at Camp Wyndham has stumbled onto some basic truths about how Dragonscale affects the human body, and that the kindness and community they believe in works for a while. As the fireman tells her “It’s easy to dismiss religion as bloody, cruel, and tribal. I’ve done it myself. But it isn’t religion that’s wired that way—it’s man himself. At bottom every faith is a form of instruction in common decency.”
The last third of the novel is the story of Harper’s journey with the fireman and Renee after Camp Wyndham goes up in flames. They are looking for the rumored island off the coast of Maine, where Martha Quinn is said to be offering shelter to those suffering from Dragonscale. As they approach the island, uninfected people leave out food and medicine along their way:
“So much kindness,” Renee said. “So many people looking after us. They don’t know a thing about us except we’re in need. I read a Cormac McCarthy novel once, about the end of the world. People hunting dogs and each other and frying up babies, and it was awful. But we need kindness like we need to eat. It satisfies something in us we can’t do without.”
At the end of the novel, Harper finds out that some of the people actually are kind, while others (as the fireman suspected, mentioning Hansel and Gretel) have more sinister motives.
There are lots of fun details I don’t want to give away because discovering them as you go along is part of the pleasure of reading this book. Did you know that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King? I didn’t, until after I had read The Fireman.