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'Things You Save in a Fire' review: Sparks fly in a firehouse

Katherine Center is the author of

Katherine Center is the author of "Things You Save in a Fire." Photo Credit: Skylar Reeves

THINGS YOU SAVE IN A FIRE by Katherine Center (St. Martin’s Press. 320 pp., $26).

To be a firefighter, you need to be in top physical shape and willing to face danger. But, as Katherine Center writes in her new novel, the requirements for a woman are more complicated.

“Don’t wear makeup, perfume, or lady-scented deodorant. ChapStick is okay, but no lip gloss — nothing shiny, no color. Don’t paint your nails. Don’t wear any jewelry, not even earring studs. And cut your hair off — or keep it back. Don’t take it down or shake it out or play with it — ever. Don’t even touch it.”

No giggling, touching, loud laughing. Don’t hesitate or act scared or carry a purse. Don’t ask questions. Accept all challenges. “If your captain says to run a mile, run two. If he wants you to deadlift 150, do one 75.”

As the book opens, Cassie Hanwell doesn’t need this advice. She loves her job as a firefighter in Austin, Texas, and her supportive, all-male crew. But at an awards ceremony, a nightmare from her past appears, and a furious Cassie, who has never talked about what happened, reacts violently. Suspension looms unless she’ll apologize, and she won’t.

Instead, she negotiates a deal for a transfer to Rockport, Massachusetts, where her estranged mother, Diana, lives. An artist who left the family when Cassie was 16, Diana asked her daughter for help while she recovers from eye surgery. Cassie refused, but now the move is the only way to keep doing what she loves.

Now, that ChapStick advice is vital. The old-school fire station in Rockport doesn’t want a “lady.”

Cassie’s perspective on her job — her calling, really — is the heart and soul of Center’s seventh novel, which offers a unique view of the firefighter mindset. Why do some people sprint toward disaster instead of running away? A firefighter’s brain works differently, Cassie explains.

“Normal humans see the explosion, or the flames, or the 24-car pileup and think: Run!” she tells us. “My brain just thinks: Huh. Cool. Everybody else is sprinting away, wild-eyed and shrieking, because that’s what evolution wants us to do – get the hell out of there. I just slow to a stop and look around. . . . Everything comes into sharp focus and gets quiet, and I can see what’s happening in exquisite clarity.”

But “Things You Save In a Fire” has a greater ambition, too: shedding a light on trauma victims and the devastating effects of ignoring emotional fallout from a harrowing experience.

The novel is at its best in the fire station, as Cassie works to earn respect: submitting to pranks, learning parkour from YouTube videos, applying for grants to upgrade the crumbling fire station. Center, whose husband is a volunteer firefighter, reveals intriguing details about the life.

The book swoops into breathless romance once Cassie meets the handsome young rookie at the station, the offspring of Boston firefighting royalty with abs that launch a thousand erotic dreams. “Those broad shoulders — and that little butt in those red boxer briefs — were burned permanently into my corneas.” A touch turns her “body into a symphony of emotion.” 

Such panting exclamations feel out of place for someone who claims “I’m not a girl. I’m a firefighter.” But why shouldn’t a young woman fall in love? Male firefighters have wives and girlfriends, Center reminds us. Why must women be exempt from normal human interaction?

“Things You Save in a Fire” can feel a little facile at times, its characters discussing feelings and forgiveness which an urgency that feels more convenient than realistic. But its window into firefighter culture is fascinating.

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