Saturday, July 26, 2008

Okay, so I've been slack...

But here's a review from the National Post.

Firefighters silent as their job takes its toll

Robert Wiersema, Weekend Post
Published: Saturday, July 26, 2008



Thomas Allen

271 pp., $32.95


Most people have a fairly solid image of firefighters as heroic, stalwart, calendar-ready hunks dramatically backlit by flames, occasionally guilty of bad behaviour (excused by their sacrifices). As far as contemporary heroes go, firefighters are pretty much the pinnacle, especially after 9/11.

The trouble with this image is that it's almost entirely superficial, with little rooting in the reality of a firefighter's daily existence. And unlike those doctors, nurses, teachers and lawyers who have produced a body of literature exploring the interstices of their professional and personal lives, a firefighter has yet to write the definitive tell-all book about the heroics and, occasionally, heroic failures of the job.

Into this void steps Newfoundland writer Russell Wangersky, with a memoir of his eight years as a volunteer firefighter, and the lingering aftermath of those years. It is, at times, a shocking, brave work, the sort of book you sense the author needed to write. Wangersky dreamed of being a firefighter for most of his life, but, as he writes, "what had been a dream became a kind of personal nightmare, as bit by bit the underpinnings of wonder and heroics fell away. I was left with horrors I still live with now, horrors that can, occasionally, sneak up on me when I don't expect them, smashing my confidence and leaving me unable to control my temper or my fears."

Organized in a loosely chronological narrative, the book follows Wangersky from the age of 21, when he joins the volunteer fire department in Wolfville, N. S., training and gradually earning his place in the firehall. The narrative gains force and intensity as Wangersky recounts his experiences in the field. This is not the tabloid heroism of the breathless headlines: Wangersky captures the confusion and fear of being inside a burning building as floors suddenly disappear; the tragedies narrowly averted; the sense of shock as the crew struggles to recover the body of a woman from a car crash. Wangersky, a long-time journalist who is now the editor of The Telegram in St. John's, handles these scenes with a terse candour, balancing an in-the-moment experiential quality with a keen eye for detail and the larger ramifications of what happens.

The heart of the book, though, is in his account of the emotional toll it all takes. Volunteer firefighting is not the sort of job one leaves at the office: You're either waiting for calls that can come at any moment, or reeling in the wake of what has happened, bad or good. Add to that

the traditional silence of the department, where one does not talk about the emotional reaction to what one has witnessed, and you have the makings of a breakdown. Wangersky documents his steady spiral into post-traumatic stress disorder with a frankness that is at once brutal and emotionally devastating. He struggles with insomnia, obsession, incipient alcoholism and other difficulties. In the end, his dream costs him his mental health and his marriage, changing him in ways that probably still elude his full understanding. The sad irony for Wangersky and his colleagues in the firehall is that such sacrifices make the heroism that much more significant.