The very best historical fiction finds ways to use true events as a jumping-off point. Facts are used as the foundation to create engaging narratives that are grounded in our reality, yet ultimately exist in their own.
Anita Shreve has taken the massive fire that took place here in Maine in 1947 - known colloquially as “The Year Maine Burned” – and used that disaster as the anchor point for her new novel “The Stars Are Fire” (Knopf, $25.95). It’s the story of one woman who is tested in the crucible of that fire, left to provide for herself and her family while also trying to move forward from the burning tragedies caused by that unstoppable blaze.
Grace Holland is living in a coastal Maine town with her husband Gene and two young children. She’s not particularly fulfilled in her relationship, but has resigned herself to the realities of her life. She and Gene married young, so she simply accepts her situation as the way things are meant to be.
But when the fire breaks out, everything changes.
Massive swathes of the Maine coast burn. Entire towns are reduced to cinders as the blaze powers its way up the coastline. Gene goes to try and help the volunteer firefighters as they attempt to head off the fire, leaving Grace alone to tend to the children. But when the fire reaches town, Grace must make her way toward the sea in a desperate effort to save herself and the kids from the inferno that is consuming her former life.
She and the kids survive, but Gene has gone missing, lost in the fire. Grace is alone, left to figure out how she can care for her children and rebuild a life from the ashes of the previous one. But as she works her way through the struggles of reassembling some semblance of a life, she finds an unexpected strength within herself and a newfound joy in the possibilities that come with independence.
But just as Grace begins to hit her stride and find her footing and her confidence, her past life reasserts its hold over her. She is left with a truly difficult decision. Does she go back to being the woman that she once was? Or does she fully and utterly commit to the person that she has become?
“The Stars Are Fire” does a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of a time and place. Maine – and really all of America – in the years post-WWII offered relatively narrow options to young women. The idea was that you got married, had kids and lived a life of unwavering devotion to your husband and family.
What Shreve does so elegantly is capture the complexities of those expectations through the lens of a woman dissatisfied with her lot. Grace Holland loves her children fiercely and deeply, but she also questions the inequity of her relationship with her husband. Turmoil roils beneath her placid exterior even as she resigns herself to a life she regrets.
Those complicated early feelings are thrown into sharp contrast by the journey toward independence that Grace undertakes. With every step, we see her grow into a person who can handle life on her own terms; she is smart and capable, sharp-witted and self-aware. It is in bringing that winding journey to life that Shreve shines brightest.
It’s clear that Shreve also invested plenty of time and effort into researching the fire and its aftermath. The beginning of the book is highlighted by the harrowing description of that event, one deeply visceral in the tension and fear that it evokes.
“The Stars Are Fire” brings a lot to the table – historical veracity, complex female characterization, tragedy, romance and more – and packages it all in breezy prose that bears the reader aloft with feathery lightness. There’s none of the cumbersomeness that sometimes weighs down historical fiction; Anita Shreve’s narrative floats brightly and maintains its great heights even when plumbing the depths of tragic events.