Book Review by Zinta Aistars
Paperback: 246 pages
Publisher: Slipdown Mountain Pubns, 2005
Like any wildfire, it begins with a spark. A small flame, and at first it is hard to tell if it will take off and blaze, or end in a whisper of smoke. Devil in the North Woods, a historical novel based on the 1908 fire that destroyed the town of Metz, Michigan, and left 43 dead and 4,600 residents suddenly homeless, begins just that way. A spark, a simmer, a lick of flame, and then, increasingly, the novel blazes with its storyline.
Author Walter Shiel based his novel on research that includes oral histories and various reports. He chose as his main character the real person of Henry Hardies, who at the time of the Metz fire was a 10-year-old boy who lost his mother and three sisters to the fire. Photos bring reality to the story, reminding the reader that fire destroys without mercy.
Aside from the Hardies boy, however, are intertwined the many stories of other Metz residents. A school teacher, a young and rattled woman looking for her fiancé, a husband and wife battling for their farm who are burned nearly to death, yet survive with a remarkable endurance and will to live. And others. Together, they bring the reader straight into the flames, sensing the rising heat of the steel walls of a train that Metz residents hope outruns the wall of flame, or into the woods where exhausted runners fall to the ground for a breath of less smoky air at earth level, going so far as to press their faces into holes they scratch into the soil that work like air filters.
Sometimes, all one can do is run, run for your life:
"Henry found himself in the lead, running furiously with his arms stretched out to knock the brush aside. The forest seemed to tilt and whirl around him. He crashed into a tree trunk, rolled away from it, and ran into the prickly needles of a small pine. He bounced off the pine, twisted around, and slammed face-first into another tree. Something sticky ran down his forehead and into his right eye. He wiped it with the back of his right hand and looked at it. Even in the uncertain, flickering firelight, he recognized it.
Blood. My blood." (Page 132)
Here is tragedy, families burned alive, homes held over generations turned to ash, but here also is a story of the human spirit that rises from that ash to build new lives. By end of the novel, the reader will be flipping pages quickly to find out who survives and who does not, and how. Some endings are predictable, no less interesting. Shiel does an excellent job of bringing history alive.