“The firestarter is ready now ... with one more pass of his thumb over the lines of Manhattan, he starts a fire. Then he bends to his knees, cups his hands on the ground, and starts another.” With a pile of burning foliage that insists on impending calamity, Andrew Pyper begins The WildFire Season, a suspenseful, yet romantic testament to the difficulty of life in Canada’s Yukon Territory.
In the remote village of Ross River, Pyper conjures up a cast of characters that are at once tragic, troubled, and surprisingly endearing, in a story as much about heartbreak and love as it is about the wild uncertainty of forest fires. The novel delves into the complicated and sometimes terrifying mind of Miles McEwan, a mysterious, scarred and lonely firefighter who makes his way to the small Yukon town in a desperate search for escape, and follows him as he is confronted with the very past that he is running from.
Miles has an uncanny ability to prophesy the future just minutes before it becomes the present, and his vision of a woman standing in the doorway of Ross River’s Welcome Inn, holding the hand of a young child, foreshadows the collision of his worlds, and the onset of a life-altering journey. Through a narrative composed of alternating perspectives, ambitiously compiled to include that of a Grizzly bear and a five year-old child, Pyper tells the story of a half-forgotten people charged with fighting fires in Canada’s densely forested northern region and the desperation that pervades the town. As an inexplicable wildfire races towards Ross River, waking its residents from a lifetime of hibernation and trailing with it the accusation of faulty play, old tensions and half forgotten emotions are stirred, fueling an already dramatic race to escape the burning village.
Though Pyper’s story culminates with one hundred-plus pages of irresistible page turning, the first half of the novel finds the reader traipsing through a murky story, lost in a thicket of overwrought metaphors, tiring detail and clumsy sentences. As if to build suspense, at least two things must always be referenced at once, to the general detriment of the prose. As the pivotal plot turn arrives, Pyper notes: “Elsie Bader’s face is slashed by the light coming through the open door. It is against this illumination that two strangers appear.”
Awkwardly composed, and jarring to the text, the multi-faceted perspective distracts from both the story and the writing, undermining the intrigue of the plot itself. When Miles is confronted with the return of his past life, Pyper trips over allusive imagery in a failed attempt to convey the significance of the moment: “Its been so long since he’s seen a girl of her age in a dress that it looks like a costume to him ... Because of this, and because of the dress, Miles has an idea that the girl is about to pull a pillowcase from behind her back and demand ‘Trick or Treat!’” Crafted with extraordinary heavy-handedness, and with an endlessly schizophrenic shift of perspective that sufficiently shatters the magic of fiction, the first half of Wildfire Season reads more like an exercise in patience than a joyful indulgence in narrative.
As the story progresses, however, the writing, with ever-increasing frequency, lapses into fluid and sometimes even beautiful prose. Clearly intrigued by the willful chaos of forest fires, and the people driven to spend their lives fighting them, Pyper is at his best when he is writing about the stunning landscape of the Yukon, and the inherent danger of living in a world dominated by the elements. With a flair for suspense and a knack for the unexpected plot twist, Pyper salvages his story, and engages his reader in a harrowing escape from the wrath of nature when provoked by humankind. Racing against time, fire, grizzlies, and enemies of their own making, the characters find themselves confronted with the mistakes of their pasts and their desires for the future at the very moment when they may be irreconcilable.
Though inconsistent, The Wildfire Season is nonetheless enthralling, and offers a scathing critique of the humans who see fit to play God. Though it is the fire and the animals that feel more human than the human characters themselves, that is an accomplishment in its own right, and vestiges of the thrilling climax linger with the reader days after the book is finished.