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REVIEW: Prairie Fire

Prairie Fire
The title of writer Anne Cameron's latest novel refers to the results of five generations of poverty, violence, child and substance abuse in the Harris clan. It is also a stinging indictment of a social welfare system that 'is willing to pay more money to break up a family than to help that family heal. . .'

The skillfully entwined stories of Fran and Liz, pre-adolescent cousins who live near each other in the same rundown neighbourhood, pull the reader into the hard-scrabble life of their extended family. Fran is old beyond her years, responsible for getting her younger siblings out of the house when her mother's husband comes home drunk and violent. 'I have to find some place.' Fran was suddenly shaking from head to foot. 'Someplace warm and dry. Then we wouldn't just be running around in the dark . . .'

A few streets away, Liz deals with a different kind of hell. 'She was eleven the first time Gowan picked her up as if she weighed nothing at all and carried her into her bedroom . . .' As an adult, Liz realizes that her mother turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse.

The novel follows Fran and Liz into adulthood as they try to create lives out of the chaos they were raised in. Fran has a succession of partners and offspring, takes in foster children and keeps a spotless house. She is the collector of family stories. And in mid-life she begins to write 'fictional' novels about abusive families. . . As a young woman, Liz turns a talent for fiddling—imagining music was her only escape when her father raped her—into a successful career in a country music band. But unlike Fran, who finds a way out of the past through writing, Liz keeps a tight lid on her feelings. When her children are grown and she can proudly tell herself that 'they're more equipped than you've ever been or ever will be,' her marriage falls apart. 'I wanted to talk to Bert about it but it would just break his heart. I didn't want to do that. He deserved better.' So does Liz.

This is not a fairy tale, and Fran and Liz must watch as some of their children lead less than perfect lives. But more than just kin, in middle age, these two kindred spirits decide to share a home. They take in foster children and hope for the best because god knows they've seen the worst.

Cameron gives us a complex swirl of a story, weaving one life into another. The novel is a testament to the human spirit, to the resilience of survivors, and to writing that keeps Fran and Liz in sight long after the novel ends.

-Mary Toohey, Prairie Fire