The Short Version: We often talk of the bravery and spirit of firefighters – but what of their families, their wives, their siblings, their children? Ashes tells the stories of five generations of powerful, magnificent women in a family where fighting fires is in the blood, from coming to Brooklyn at the tail end of the Famine to the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, and everything that happens along the way.
The Review: There was a play that was produced several years ago called Sweet and Sad, by Richard Nelson. It premiered at The Public, full disclosure, and it opened on the day it was set: the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It’s one of my favorite pieces of theater and also one of the best artistic responses to 9/11 I’ve ever encountered. Richard, the elder son of the family, says at one point, “Haven’t we done this enough? Haven’t we grieved enough?” – and since that ten year anniversary, I’ve thought of that play on what we now are told is called “Patriot’s Day”. I don’t want to read stories of that day anymore, I don’t want to be made to feel the way I felt that awful Tuesday morning in a classroom in suburban Pennsylvania. I don’t want to think about the chaos our country went through (is still going through?) for ten, twelve, now fifteen years. Haven’t we done this enough?
As such, I was a little nervous about Ashes of Fiery Weather. On the one hand, even the cover screamed out to me that this was a perfect late-summer read – but on the other, the looming presence of an inevitable chapter about 9/11 gave me little butterflies. So it is to Kathleen Donohoe’s credit that within the first few pages, I’d forgotten entirely (or, well, nearly entirely) about my concerns and was, instead, blissfully diving into a big family novel of the type I love so much. The opening scene, of the funeral and wake of a firefighter from the point of view of his wife as she tries to mother three and prepares for a yet-unannounced fourth, are just masterful in every way. Donohoe creates, almost from the first page, a realistic and nuanced portrayal of a catastrophic moment in a life – but without ever veering into the maudlin or manipulative. As that scene begins to slip into memory and flashback, the reader is ready to go with her wherever she takes us.
The novel is in many ways a “novel in stories”, although I don’t quite know whether the chapters were constructed to stand up on their own (although I’d bet that at least the first two sections would do quite well indeed and likely several others). We begin with Norah, the wife who married into the family, and then jump to her mother-in-law, Delia. Then, perhaps most interestingly, a woman who doesn’t make it onto the family tree at all – followed by the matriarch, Norah’s eldest daughter, Delia’s adopted daughter, and finally the youngest scion of the clan who was herself given up for adoption. Each of these stories connects, in both obvious and less-than-obvious ways – and while there is pleasure in saying “oohhh, that’s about that thing!” as though we are privy to family secrets that not even the whole family knows, this also isn’t the sort of book where you really need to pay much attention to the family tree at the front of the book. These women are not only all so distinct but they are distinctly of their time. The younger generations both love and resent the older ones and the older ones feel the younger ones to be so fresh and blind and to’ve maybe taken for granted just how hard it was to give them the opportunities they had. I guess what I’m saying is that Donohoe creates in the space of 400 pages a family, with all its quirks and problems and flaws and facets.
One of the best and strongest stories in the bunch is that of Delia, the youngest daughter of a Brooklyn firefighter known as “Gentleman Jack” Keegan. Delia’s relationships – with her husband, with her friend Nathaniel, with her friends Fionnula and Claire – are so deeply felt and beautifully rendered that they feel lived-in. There’s a quiet shift that happens at one point, where we think we know Delia relatively well (having already gotten a sense of her from Norah’s point of view as well as from a bit of time in her own head) but are shown a completely different side of her via what is basically a literary smash-cut that doesn’t so much smash as it does wake you up gently on a crisp autumn morning, and I absolutely loved it. In one stroke, I understood so much more about Delia without even needing to read or experience anything further – and not because of the superficial thing about her that I now knew, but because of the very real ramifications of that knowledge. This is not the only time that such a curtain-pulling reveal occurs, but it was my favorite and it showed Donohoe’s talents at their finest.
She also has a gifted eye for the adoption narrative, which recurs broadly throughout the book in a “the past repeats itself” kind of way. The middle of the book sometimes drifted a bit but always had a strong emotional center with these stories of giving someone up, whether that someone was your child or yourself. Yes, we get the narrative from adoptees (Eileen and Katie) but we also see Annie-Rose, the family matriarch, decide to go into a convent – which is its own kind of giving-up-for-adoption. And then, of course, we also get to see various members of this deeply Irish Catholic family grappling with what to do about unexpected pregnancy. Maggie’s decision to give up her daughter, for example, is absolutely the right one but it’s also deeply painful – and, again, Donohoe doesn’t get maudlin or make a play for the Nicholas Sparks angle of it all, but instead delivers a rich and honest take that also by extension encourages an emotional response.
And the same could be said, I do suppose, for the chapters that touch directly on 9/11. We’re eased into it, first with Maggie, who is teaching in Ireland at the time and hears about it on the news, immediately panicking when she realizes that nearly half her family are firefighters. Then Eileen’s chapter – which has its jumps back in time, although those avoid the trap of talking about her early days on the force as one of the first women to pass the FDNY test (for one, it’s discussed often enough in the other chapters and for another, it feels like it isn’t the story that Donohoe wants to tell, rightly so), but focuses mainly on the experience of that horrible September Tuesday. And while I felt uncomfortable, I realized right away that I was uncomfortable because perhaps we haven’t “done this enough” – or, perhaps more accurately, it will take a long while before it will not provoke a reaction, regardless of how often or not we “do this”. Donohoe evokes the fear and panic and blind confusion of that day without ever once sliding into what would come next in this country and that, I think, might be her greatest achievement. I still did not necessarily want to revisit that day, but I was glad that when I did, it was that day and not what that day later became. This is not to say that Donohoe doesn’t move forward from that day, but when she does, it’s all about those who were lost – the firefighters, cops, medics, and civilians. The Keegan-O’Reilly family had seen all the previous most deadly days in the history of the consolidated FDNY and when one of the characters puts those days into perspective… it was breathtaking in a way that I didn’t realize my breath could still be taken.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. A strong debut featuring a vividly rendered family – and, not just that, a vividly rendered Brooklyn that spans over one hundred years. I recognize the world that these characters inhabit as the same New York that I live in now, not some fictional next-door simulacrum. Donohoe’s prose is like the jacket you put on that first morning you realize you might need one: comfortable, full of simultaneous memory and promise, and exactly what you need. I thought I was done, for a while, with narratives that touch on 9/11 – but as it turns out, there was room for one more when it was done so well.