Those Who Favor Fire A Novel

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1999-01-26
  • Publisher: Random House
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People feel at home in Belle Haven, and in many ways it is like any other small town, with a cafe where regulars come for the fresh cinnamon rolls and to talk about the weather, or one another, often staying all day. It's a town with the usual collection of quirky characters--the people everyone knows who, by staying in one place long enough, have become part of its landscape. But what sets Belle Haven apart is its especially strong sense of community, which is both strengthened and tested by the uncontrollable mine fire that burns below the town. Sometimes it breaks through the earth's surface to swallow somebody's garden or a garbage can, even a beloved pet, or to threaten a house. Those Who Favor Fireis the love story of Rachel Hearn, who has lived in Belle Haven all her life, and the man everyone calls Just Joe, who has arrived only recently--and the story of their love for the town that has brought them together. But as the fire intensi- fies, endangering Belle Haven and its people, it also threatens what Joe and Rachel have found together. Though some reluctantly consider relocating, Rachel refuses to leave the only place she's ever called home, the place that holds her richest memories. But Joe knows the danger of becoming too firmly rooted in a place. Ultimately, Rachel and Joe must decide whether to abandon their beloved town. In her wonderful debut novel, Lauren Wolk has created a town every bit as real as the Mitford of Jan Karon's novels and populated it with characters as quirky, lively, and endearing as Fannie Flagg's. From the Hardcover edition.

Author Biography

<b>Lauren Wolk</b> was born in Baltimore and has since lived in California, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Canada, and Ohio.  She now lives with her husband and two sons on Cape Cod, where she is at work on a second novel.  After graduating from Brown University in 1981, Wolk worked as a writer for the Battered Women's Project of the St. Paul American Indian Center. She later moved to Toronto, where she was a senior editor with Nelson Canada. Since the birth of her first son, Wolk has been a freelance writer and editor. She is also a contributing editor for <i>OWL</i>, an award-winning children's magazine.<br><br><br><i>From the Hardcover edition.</i>


Halloween was hellish in Belle Haven. It hadn't al-ways been that way, except in the minds of its small children, who could not imagine that the world had been any different--that there had even been a world--before their own momentous arrival in it. But the year that Mary Beth Sanderson died, Halloween was, at best, im-pure, corrupted by its cavalier association with the dead and dying both. Less than a week had passed since the earth had opened up and taken Mary Beth, and the town was still in mourning. But Hal-loween was Halloween, and the people of Belle Haven went about the whole thing with the last of their resolve.

It was as if they couldn't pass up the chance to polish Belle Haven's silver lining, to flash it one last time in the cool light of an indulgent moon. Despite misgivings, those who had not yet left Belle Haven carved their jack-o'-lanterns with exceptional precision, decorated their trees with elaborate ghouls, and chose their candies with care. Then they entrusted their children to the uncertain dusk, warning them to beware not of child snatchers or rapists or bullies but of the very ground they walked on.

Living on top of a fire makes people cautious. It makes them won-der whether a flaming tentacle is at this moment winding its way toward the root cellar. It makes them walk softly and sniff the air for sulfur like a species of strange, two-legged deer. It makes them fight amongst themselves when the conversation turns to the tired old question, now nearly moot, of whether they should pack their bags and leave or stay and, quite possibly, die.

Rachel Hearn had listened to such arguments for a long time now--in the grocery store, at the post office, on the radio, in the street. She un-derstood the urge to go as well as the resolve to stay. She even under-stood the really stubborn ones who saw the boreholes spouting their plumes of yellow smoke, who watched litter turn to ash as it blew across the hot ground, who had known Mary Beth Sanderson for every one of her thirteen years and still refused to take the fire at its word.
"It'll never get us," they'd say. "The fire's nowhere near my house."  But they all owned canaries and kept one eye on the ground.  Rachel Hearn thought there were simply too many pianos.

"What the hell are you talking about?" asked Joe. Most people knew him by this name alone. Just Joe. "What in blazes have pianos got to do with the fire?" (Fire puns, intended or not, were an accepted and rarely acknowledged part of conversation in Belle Haven.)  Joe was sitting on a tree stump this Halloween night, dressed as a troll, eating a huge, tight-skinned MacIntosh and watching a handful of children sneak slowly down the street toward him. To cross the old and narrow bridge that took Maple Street over Raccoon Creek, the children had to first pass close to the stump where Joe sat, collecting his toll. Rachel, done up as a witch, perched on the rail of the bridge, swung her feet in their tall boots, and absently stabbed her own palms with her sharp witch's nails.

She said, "I once heard someone say that the reason more Jews didn't try to escape Nazi Germany before it was too late was because they couldn't bear to leave their pianos behind." In the face of Joe's si-lence, she hunched inside her tattered gown and closed her eyes, lulled by the language of the water passing under the bridge. "Too many roots," she explained, "that went too deep."

Joe had a different theory. They're paralyzed, he said to himself, wiping the apple juice from his chin. Paralyzed. He said it with gentle contempt, exasperation, and great fondness.

Whenever people asked Joe whether he was going to stay or leave, he'd say, "Why the hell do you care what I do? What in hell is the point of even asking?" But everyone knew that he would leave only when Rachel did, perhaps with her, perhaps alone.

Hell was a word heard often in Belle Haven. The reporters who had been coming into town lately never failed to ask, in the rare inteviews they were granted, "Do you think of this fire as a sort of hell?"  Then, glancing casually at their notes, they'd drop names from Dante and paraphrase the Bible, all the while wielding their microphones like weapons.

None of them expected much from Joe. Most passed him by alto-gether.  His clothes were threadbare, his hands were thick with cal-luses, and the expression on his face was meant to discourage their intrusions. But a few, hoping to add color to their copy, laid their analogies carefully before him, smiled with impatience, pronounced him illiterate with their judge-and-jury eyes. Joe invariably backed away down the street, saying, as he walked, in a slow and thoughtful way,

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

"I'm sorry," he would say over his shoulder. " 'Fire and Ice.' Robert Frost. Not mine, although I, too, favor fire."
Now, from his lookout on the tree stump, Joe watched the trick-or-treaters inch toward him, giggling with fear. Nearly at his feet, wary of his big troll hands, they stopped, reached into their candy sacks, and pulled out the apples they'd been given by the few old ladies who still refused to leave Belle Haven to its fire. The children placed the apples carefully into the bushel basket that Joe used to col-lect his toll each year.

"Pass," he growled, waggling his horns at them. At this, even the older children trotted across the bridge, laughing like goats, all real
fears forgotten.  The children gone, Joe polished up their grubby apples, made adjustments to his costume, and studied the stars. "How's business been this year?" Rachel asked him, and her voice, in this lull, sounded too loud, too old.

"Terrible," he said and, shrugging, managed to look endearing de-spite the tufts of green hair that sprouted wildly from his ears.  "I ran into Anne Schifflebien at the Superette last week," Rachel said, easing down off the rail to take up a new spot beside him where she could see his face and he could see hers if he chose to. "She seems to think there's something not quite right about a grown man extort-ing apples from children."

"I'm the troll," Joe replied, tilting his head back for a better look at the Seven Sisters. "It's my job."
"She said you've forced her into giving Cracker Jacks this year."
"I'm evil, I am," Joe said. He picked out an apple and offered it to Rachel.

Rachel returned to the rail for a while, eating her apple, and watched the occasional children pass, but she soon began to feel that she was spoiling the whole thing, despite her witch's rig. The bridge was Joe's domain this night, not hers. She'd already taken her basket of candies down to the huge willow tree in the park by the school where the children knew they'd find her, a tigress one year, an octopus the next, crouching or coiled among the branches, waiting to drop treats into their gaping bags. They had liked her as a witch, they said, because of the glow-in-the-dark spiral that climbed up her wonderfully pointed hat.

"I'll eat you up, my little pretties," she had cackled in reply an  showered them with chocolate kisses wrapped in foil.  But that was all done with, and Rachel could not think of a way to make the night begin again. So she gained her feet, thanked Joe for the apple, and walked off down the street, her long black gown trail-ing behind her, a distant portion of red, smouldering horizon catching her in silhouette. My, my, thought Joe. What a beautiful witch she makes.

Rachel Hearn was twenty-three years old. The fire that burned under Belle Haven had started shortly after her tenth birthday.  Garbage dumped for years in an old mine pit two miles from her house had somehow caught fire, and the flames had crept hungrily underground. They had followed shafts rich in timber straight down to the tunnels, to a feast of unmined coal, and had fed on coal veins ever since--slowly, quietly, but without pause. The government had sent experts in to track the fire, measure its girth, forecast its activity, predict its demise. Some said it would burn for a thousand years.

If not for the violence of its repercussions, this deliberate, nearly placid progression might have seemed more bovine than anything else. But, like the anaconda, it tended to creep up on its victims.  Most easily, perhaps, on the swiftest among them, those most certain of their chances of escape.

There were now several places in Belle Haven where the ground had caved in without warning, where the heat coming up from below was 500 degrees Fahrenheit. And although boreholes had been drilled throughout the town to vent the fire's hideous, sulfurous fumes, every basement was equipped with a monitor that sniffed the air filtering up through the ground and sounded an alarm at the scent of poison coming quietly in.

Rachel often wondered about the canaries imprisoned throughout the town. Would someone deeply asleep, full of meat loaf and parsley potatoes and lemon chiffon pie, be awakened by the death throes of a small, yellow bird grown tired and dispirited from a life behind bars?  She had once considered equipping herself with a canary or two and had even gone so far as to visit the pet shop over in Randall.

budgie blowout said the sign in the window. buy one, get one
free. Inside, she had followed the bird sounds to the cages at the
back of the shop.

Some were awhirl with parakeets: lime green, purple, yellow, spring sky blue. They had black-and-white wings, small white faces, black eyes. The bigger parrots, spotting Rachel at their cages, stuck out their tough little tongues. One had zebra stripes around his eyes, white, leathery cheeks, and a long, blue, lady's-hat tail. Another had a white cowlick and a blue-rimmed eye, his partner a green cap and a black beard. The canaries were a feeble yellow. The jungle-colored lovebirds in the cage next to them looked as if they were dying.

The last cage Rachel came to held two Mollucan cockatoos. They were big birds, white with bright yellow underwings. They were
cleaning each other and ignored her as she stepped before their cage.  They didn't seem to notice the din around them. It was as if they were sitting in a clean and wonderfully distant rain forest. The sign on their cage said they'd been marked down from $799.00 to $699.99. Rachel left the store without a canary. She would never have a bird for a pet. That much she knew.

Instead, Rachel had dozens of spider plants, which had grown plump and juicy on their diet of tainted air. At least as many spiders roamed unchallenged through her house, kept the plants free of pests, and, said Rachel, brought her luck.

"Never kill a spider unless it's as big as a Buick," she had once told Ed, the mailman, when he arrived on her front porch to find her rescuing a sack of baby spiders from her mailbox, just in time.

She felt equally protective about all of the more vulnerable crea-tures with whom she shared her patch of ground. After a heavy rain she'd don slicker and rain boots, grab her worm spatula, and head for her front walk. She'd scoop up the half-drowned worms that were dragging themselves raw across her walkway and put them in a nice, dry, loamy place in the lee of her compost heap. Rachel Hearn had the richest compost in Belle Haven. In the springtime, when young frogs filled the twilight with their unearthly song and insisted on crossing the roads, cars notwithstanding, Rachel never drove on country lanes after sundown. And in the summer, loath to spill poison into the ground or spew it into the air, she relied on ladybugs to keep the aphids from her roses.

For only seven dollars and fifty cents, Rachel had once ordered a thousand ladybugs from a catalogue. When they'd arrived, stunned and angry, Rachel had sat down and cried over her complicity. A thousand ladybugs packed into a mesh bag, folded up into a card-board carton, and sent tumbling through the postal system had been delivered into her hands, and she was nearly sure that she could hear them weeping. She had waited until the cool of the evening and then set the open package among her roses, but when she returned in the morning she found that the box was still nearly full of ladybugs. It took hours of careful prodding before they began to leave of their own accord, and then the exodus began in earnest. They stumbled out in their endearing way, so perfect, the kind of bugs Disney might have invented, and took refuge in her incredible garden.

If they were confused by the fact that every single plant in this garden--from tulip to lilac--was cradled in its own spectacular pot, they never let on. Perhaps they were charmed by the pots, which Rachel made with her hands, her wheel, and her kiln. Most were wrapped in brilliant ribbons of color, glazed to gleam in all kinds of weather, and fashioned with such care that they never toppled, not even in storms. Rachel had been told that the hill on which her house stood was relatively safe, for there were no mine tunnels directly below her, no coal to speak of, not that anyone knew of, right close by. But Rachel had come to be a skeptic of sorts and was loath to plant her flowers where the fire might, on a whim, bake them black.  "And what do you plan to do if things heat up too much around here?" Joe had once asked her as she filled the back of a huge ceramic turtle with nasturtiums. "Those pots will turn right into ovens, Rachel."

"That day may never come," she had replied, her eyes on her work, "so why think about it now?"  In much the same way, Rachel had never liked to think about the monitor in her cellar, the changing configuration of the fire, the par-ents who bundled up their pallid babies and put Belle Haven behind them, sorrow and resignation clear in every step they took away from town. But eventually the fire had given her no other choice but to look straight into its face and admit the very things she had fought so
hard to deny.

As she climbed the front steps of her hilltop house this Halloween night, Rachel turned to gaze for a moment at the cauldrons that had laid claim across the northern fields. Whenever the fire climbed close to the crusty skin of the earth, whenever it broke through, it made an angry sore that oozed and bubbled and pulsed. Rachel forced herself to stay a while longer, to watch the fire burning until her eyes began to ache. Then, chilled by the sight and by the impartial autumn air, Rachel went inside her beloved house, trembling with pray-ers, searching for but not finding a way to stop this night from its

By the time Rachel had made her way to her bedroom, Joe had found his way slowly through the woods behind her house, covered
his apples with a bit of canvas to keep off the frost, and climbed the ladder to his house. He'd built it in a mighty walnut tree on land he didn't own, with wood he'd salvaged from fallen barns near and far, with nails others had given him outright, with his own potent sweat.  He would never again sleep in this refuge. The fire had come, win-ter was close behind it, and much as he loved this place, he would not die for it. But on this Halloween night he was content, unafraid, wrapped in worn but mended blankets, and could see the stars with-out even opening his eyes.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from Those Who Favor Fire: A Novel by Lauren Wolk
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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