If fires raged through your town and you had to save yourself and your children, what would you do?
That’s the premise of a new book released this week, published by Alfred. A Knopf publishers.
“The Stars are Fire,” by Anita Shreve, is a fictional tale based on the Maine Fires of 1947. Set in Biddeford Pool, Maine, where Shreve once lived, it tells the story of 24-year-old Grace Holland, whose husband disappears while helping to fight the fires. Left alone to care for her two children, Holland must tap into her inner strength in a way she’s never had to before.
Seventy years ago, here in Maine, a drought stretched through the summer months into fall. The forest fires began in October, raging along the coast and touching Portland, Kennebunk, Wells, Bar Harbor and so many other communities. Hundreds of homes burned, and thousands of Mainers were left homeless.
During the fire, 151 of 156 houses in Biddeford Pool burned, Shreve said.
Shreve read a book about the fire more than a half-dozen years ago, and was intrigued by a detail in it: “Women had to go into the sea to save themselves — not all women, but some,” Shreve said. “I was interested in the idea of a women with young children who had to go into the sea to save herself.”
With that in mind, she created the fictional life of Grace, an imagining of what that woman might do not just to survive the fire, but to survive and care for her children in the aftermath.
In order to tell the story though, first Shreve had to research as much as she could about what really happened. She read day-by-day newspaper accounts that were filled with “incredible stories and photographs.”
“The photos — they tell you so much about the aftermath,” Shreve said.
She also learned about fire and its behavior, in order to keep the book as spot-on as possible with those details.
“Once I had the general idea of the fire, I wrote it from the point of view of this housewife. … There was no early warning system in Maine [then],” Shreve said. At best, a bullhorn and smell of smoke warned folks of the danger. When it was all over, people “had nothing to come back to — no houses, clothes, food, shelter.”
All they had, like Grace in the story, was their inner strength.
“It had to go there. Because after the fire, she has no choice — she has to keep her kids and her mother alive and they depended on the kindness of others,” Shreve said.
The telling of this novel is different than others Shreve has written, including “The Pilot’s Wife,” and “The Weight of Water.”
“The writing style is different — it’s in vignettes,” Shreve said. “I like the idea of putting them together and not using the connective tissue because a lot of that connective tissue feels forced.”
The technique is effective in telling the emotional, touching story that goes deeply inside a troubled marriage, social norms of the time and how things can change for the better.
“It’s really about people,” Shreve said.
The book is available now at bookstores throughout Maine.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story included details of a book signing event planned in Bangor for June. Unfortunately, Anita Shreve has had to cancel all events through the spring and summer due to a health emergency. We wish her the best for a full and speedy recovery.