The Firelight Girls
There are many ways to say goodbye to your childhood --- a selling of the home one grew up in, the rekindling of affection for a first love, the death of someone near and dear. Leaving behind the past and venturing into a better future unhindered by the baggage of your previous life is a well-worn narrative discussion. However, it is one that, with all sentimental agreement, I understand as a major draw for both writers and readers alike. Thus, Kaya McLaren takes her shot at this niche with THE FIRELIGHT GIRLS, a novel of the past and the future and how to understand the difference in an uncertain present.
For those of you who went to sleepaway camp, the experience seems to be the kind of time in one’s life that completely scars you, like that heart with your initials and those of a young beloved in it scars a tree trunk. The friendships and events of those long-ago summers haunt you and, in a variety of manners, inform so many of the decisions you make about your life. For God’s sake, didn’t that camp help you become the person you are today? Didn’t all those life lessons learned over melting marshmallows and canoe rides take you, as they say in TO SIR, WITH LOVE, “from crayons to perfume”? Most likely, as we have seen in Meg Wolitzer’s THE INTERESTINGS and the movie Camp, friendships formed during these dramatic, important years become the relationships by which so many others in your life are gauged. And so it goes with THE FIRELIGHT GIRLS.
The characters are types any reader would recognize. Ethel, the 70-year-old woman who served as a longtime camp director, is facing the double-edged sword of the death of her beloved as well as the possible closing of the camp at Lake Wenatchee, the most secure home she has ever known. Enter 40-year-old Shannon, a camp counselor with nothing but potential who is now, as a grownup, watching all that potential go down the drain as her career commits hari-kari in the real world. Her friend, Laura, is mourning the death of her physical relationship with her husband and wondering if she can ever recharge it, while complicated Ruby just wants to make up for all the nastiness she perpetrated among the girls and Ethel, especially, by trying to help stave off the inevitable. As they gather to see if there is any chance at saving the beloved camp, a young teen runaway is found living on the grounds. Her struggle to survive in an ever-darkening world gives the other women pause to consider what the camp is really all about: in one word, survival.
"Kaya McLaren is a fine writer. She puts all the right dots in all the right places and clearly expected that the audience would read THE FIRELIGHT GIRLS with a box of tissues at the ready.... [T]his is one reunion that readers actually could enjoy attending."
Kaya McLaren is a fine writer. She puts all the right dots in all the right places and clearly expected that the audience would read THE FIRELIGHT GIRLS with a box of tissues at the ready. Her style is far from schmaltzy, though, which saves some of the more predictable aspects of the plot from being too cornpone for a sophisticated reader. After all, the writer has an intense connection with the subject matter; when someone told her to write what she knows, she really did. McLaren spent four years working the summers as a counselor at Camp Zanika in Washington, as well as two years as director of teen programs there. Clearly, camp is a vocation for her, and thus you can sense --- in every word, in every act --- a contemplation of the gravity and fragility of the camp experience in memory as she has experienced and expects others will as well.
The bringing in of a younger woman to the camp farewell gives each of the ladies even more reason to think hard on the ways in which the camp has affected each of their lives. But is coming back to a place where adolescents wax poetic and commune with nature and each other the best way to find the strength to deal with the very real problems of the women involved?
I expect that many a book club could find hours of exhilarating conversation trying to determine just what qualities and badges won at camp would most likely help these women find new footing as their lives begin new chapters. A nice twist is that Ethel is sad after losing Haddie, her lifelong female partner with whom she fell in love at camp some five decades earlier. Making the story an entirely man-free zone is a nice way to create the palpable sense of tight-knit community the camp offered for all the women. Her conversations with the urn holding her partner’s ashes are funny but humbling at the same time.
I have to say that the story of Amber, the girl who is hiding out in the camp, is the most intriguing. Hoping that no one would notice what she’s missing from her life is an interesting metaphor for what all the other women are going through. Something very visceral is missing from their lives, and no one else seems to care enough about any of them to notice. However, they do notice those holes in each other’s lives, and that renewed sense of commitment to each other, along with the reuniting of many important members of the camp’s community of old, brings the moral of the story into an aurora borealis of good feelings and fiery hopes for future progress and positivity.
THE FIRELIGHT GIRLS doesn’t offer a lot of new ideas for this beloved narrative trend, but this is one reunion that readers actually could enjoy attending.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on November 7, 2014
The Firelight Girls
- Publication Date: October 14, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
- ISBN-10: 125001977X
- ISBN-13: 9781250019776