With thanks to Wendy Martin, editor of Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, and Elizabeth Fishel, writer and mentor, for honoring my book with these very kind words.
There Was a Fire Here: A Memoir
“Have you ever asked yourself: if my house were on fire, what would I grab?”
So begins Risa Nye’s elegant, haunting memoir, There Was A Fire Here. What to
many is only a hypothetical conundrum, a kind of parlor game about what matters most,
to Nye, the question was a grim reality. On an unseasonably warm and windy October
morning in 1991, her Oakland, California home was threatened by fire. Nye and her
husband, Bruce, had lived there for seven years with their three young kids—15, 10, and
5. They loved their blue house, their friendly neighbors, their location—exactly across the
street from the kids’ elementary school—and the red brick planters out front where
daffodils bloomed bright every spring. At first they stood wide-eyed on their road,
staring in disbelief as the fire raged in the hills across the freeway. They could not
imagine that it would jump eight lanes of traffic to reach their street. But as the day wore
on, it became clear that they would have to evacuate—even while denying that their
beloved home and neighborhood would be hit.
That’s when they started dashing madly through the house reaching for whatever
came to mind first. Caitlin, their teenager, took her schoolbooks and the Birkenstocks
she had bought with her own money. Bruce thought to grab the binder of favorite family
recipes and downloaded some important files from the computer to a disc. Nye took her
signature leather jacket, her older son’s tap shoes, a jewelry box, their photo albums and
baby books, and their bird, Ethel. Later they would kick themselves over all the crucial
things they forgot—among them, changes of clothes and a cherished baby quilt that
helped ease one of their sons to dreamland.
While ashes spun in the air “like little dervishes of black flakes” (12), they fled to
Bruce’s parents’ house in a nearby town for safety. Meanwhile strong winds turned the
fire into a smoldering inferno. By 4:00 pm that afternoon, they would later learn, their
house was gone. It had taken less than half a minute to go up in flames. Theirs—and
most of their neighbors’—were among the almost 3,500 homes that were lost that day in
what would be known as the Oakland Firestorm, the largest single fire in California
history in terms of lives lost (25 people killed and 150 injured), homes demolished, and
cost ($3.9 billion in present-day dollars).
In a spare but beautifully evocative narrative, Nye recounts the long, emotional, often
messy aftermath of the fire and the family’s recovery: their move into temporary
housing, the 46-page, single-spaced list for the insurance company of what they had
lost (in a word: everything), and what she calls their easy decision to rebuild. Twenty-five
years after the fact, the memories still smolder, and her stories are vivid with detail. She
wisely kept a journal of every step of the rebuilding process (future memoir writers: take
note), so she shows with heart-wrenching clarity the moment her husband breaks down
in the car wailing, “Things will never be the same!” (48) or her meltdown at a shoe store
when the clerk will not take one of her temporary checks. Of course the permanent ones
have gone up in smoke along with the “tape, scissors, Band Aids, paper towels, big
spoons, notepads, pens, cleaning supplies” (72) and the dozens of other items that the
Nyes find missing every day when they are needed.
The memoir is grounded in exactly this kind of rich specificity. Yes, things are just
things, and many of them can be replaced. But a family’s stuff also tells the stories of its
history, and Nye’s deft narrative becomes a quilt of the lost objects that make up a life. In
a wise story-telling strategy, she interlaces the recovery tale with short chapters on many
of these burned artifacts: from her husband’s gold watch to her own collection of
political buttons to Aunt Augusta’s chair that they schlepped from Bruce’s teen-age
room through every rental of their early marriage to their beloved blue house. Small
photos illustrate these chapters. The result is one contemporary family’s story told
through the kaleidoscope of the things they cared about most.
Less than a month after the fire, Nye celebrated her fortieth birthday. Instead of
hiding under a rock, she dressed up in a “black dress with an overlay of sequins” (92)
and threw a big dance party. Surrounded by her supportive community, she counted her
blessings: “good friends, family, resilience, and faith in our ability to come out of this
stronger” (92). Her can-do attitude plus the practical primer toward recovery she
presents make There Was A Fire a must-read for anyone responding to a traumatic
loss. But for any readers who have asked themselves that hypothetical question about
what they would grab fleeing a fire, it’s an inspiring tale of one family’s resilience.
Wonderful review. I can’t imagine living through something like this. What an important book to have in the world!
Thanks so much, Michelle!