Fire is the great civilizer, the mastery of which, many anthropologists believe, propelled our evolution from protohominids to modern humans. Fire is also the great destroyer of civilizations, whether the palaces of Troy or the little town of Lytton, British Columbia, which was burned to the ground on June 30, 2021.
Born in Ontario and long a resident of Alberta, Dorothy Bentley paid close attention to events in the neighboring province. “I was noticing a lot of fires throughout North America, particularly in British Columbia, as well as California,” she tells Kirkus in a Zoom conversation from her home near Calgary. “The summer temperatures seemed to be lasting longer and reaching new highs—in Lytton, it rose to 49 degrees [120 F]. I was interested in issues around biodiversity, and I started thinking about trees and forestry and how all that was related to and perhaps feeding into the forest fire problem.”
Then Lytton exploded into flames, leveling the town. Having survived a devastating fire in her former home in northern Alberta, Bentley began to work on a novel intended for middle school readers. The first character to come to mind was a teenager named Tamarack Tess, who embodied many of the author’s concerns: A biodiversity and environmental activist, she is also a born organizer with a keenly analytical mind and a gentle, inviting nature.
Bentley wrote a story centering on Tess. But then, thinking more about the complexities of climate change and the many people involved—some members of Canada’s First Nations whose homeland Lytton lies in, some people who make their living logging the forests or fighting fires—she broadened her cast of characters. Tess remains central to the final novel, Escape From the Wildfire (James Lorimer, Jan. 1), but the protagonist is now 14-year-old Jack, whose devotion to gaming, riding his mountain bike, and leaving piles of dirty laundry on the floor for his mother to pick up slowly transforms to a more thoughtful stance thanks to Tess’ example. (It doesn’t hurt that Jack is smitten with her.)
Tess recruits Jack to help the high school’s Biodiversity Club set up a website. Meanwhile, Jack’s older sister, Quinn, decides to put off going to college in order to make some money working in the logging business. The forest is tinder-dry, and, as Jack observes from his window, “the mountains across the Fraser River no longer had any snow”—and this in late winter, a fact that, the still-callow Jack reckons, will just mean that his mountain-bike haunts will have dry trails, easy to navigate. “I was inspired by a picture I saw of a dirt bike rider,” Bentley recalls, “but I thought that would really limit what a boy could do as far as what trail he can ride on—and besides, two of my kids are into mountain biking.”
Jack is beginning to find himself in a time of hormone-driven teenage confusion, inspired by Tess’ “care about the world” and guided by an English teacher to write, as Bentley puts it with an ominous hint of what’s to come, “like your house is on fire.” Bentley did the same, finishing a first draft of Escape at the end of that bone-dry, hot summer of 2021, caught up in an ever larger narrative.
By that time, the real Lytton was gone, swept away by a huge fire of unknown origin. Bentley works several possibilities of how the fire started into the story, adding a layer of mystery, but climate change and the loss of biodiversity stand at the center of all of them.
So, too, is Jack’s Lytton now turned to ash and rubble, and with it, all he had ever known: “I was exhausted and panicked,” he recounts. “Like the low point of a game, my life in Lytton was gone.” Jack’s father, a firefighter, is busy battling a series of cataclysmic blazes that show no signs of abating. Tess and her family move to a distant village to the north, while Jack’s mother takes him to Victoria, a big city to which he feels no attachment and where he has no friends.
As Bentley had experienced herself after the Alberta fire, “Everyone suffered with one form or another of trauma or PTSD.” Counseling helped, as it helps Jack and the other former inhabitants of Lytton, who, in real life as in her novel, are now rebuilding—and rebuilding to withstand the next fire, which is sure to come. As Jack proclaims, defiantly, “I wasn’t a victim. I was a survivor.”
Escape From the Wildfire began life as a novel for younger readers, but as she revised it, Bentley recast her story as a YA novel, allowing her to explore the teenage emotions and moods—love, disaffection, bewilderment—that her characters experience. The story also is full of action, some quite frightening, that, as our reviewer notes, makes it of appeal to even reluctant readers. “Jack himself is not a reader or very keen on writing at the beginning of the story,” Bentley says, but a little inspiration, and the maturity that survival brings, changes his life.
Bentley’s novel has been strongly praised. Meanwhile, though busy promoting her book, she’s working on a story meant for those middle school readers for whom she originally intended Escape. Will it remain in that category? Dorothy Bentley smiles and says, “We’ll have to see.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.