This powerful new novel by Vancouver writer Carrie Mac begins in media res, deep in a Pacific Northwest forest. Two teenagers, Annie and Pete, are in a tent with a forest fire approaching. Annie is caring for Pete, who is in perilous condition – feverish, puffy, his ears blackening, and smelling of “the rankest body odor you can imagine.” The chapter ends at a point of desperation: Pete can’t be moved, but if the two of them stay where they are, the fire will likely claim them.
From there, Mac flashes back to show how the friends arrived in this disastrous situation. Pete and Annie grew up together in a small town in Washington State. They both love the outdoors, and recently Annie has begun to wonder if she sees Pete as more than a friend. This realization is complicated by the fact that Pete now has a girlfriend, Preet. Annie neither wants to ruin what she and Pete have always had, nor does she want to cause the break up of her best friend’s new relationship.
Following the recent death of her grandmother, Annie has retreated inward, spending her days getting high and re-watching the trashy movies she and her grandmother used to indulge in together. Mac paints a powerful portrait of depression; not even the thought of the outdoors brings Annie any pleasure.
Even the long-awaited prospect of fire camp – where teens are trained to fight forest fires – holds no appeal. Annie’s father, in tandem with Pete, basically forces her to go. Pete has another plan as well: they’ll take a little-used trail and meet up with the main path en route. Pete thinks exposure to the wilderness will help bring Annie back to herself, and she reluctantly goes along with him. Pete’s plan, of course, goes awry, and a simple injury leads to the dire straits the two face as the novel opens.
Mac allows the reader to dwell within Annie’s mind by crafting a novel that is at once viscerally potent and deeply thoughtful. And the author handles the relationships in Wildfire with grace. Annie and Pete’s friendship is natural, rooted in mutual respect and deep love. Even Preet, who could have been depicted in two-dimensional terms, is given agency and a depth of character that is genuinely surprising.
The narrative shifts and twists in ways which are completely unexpected – transforming, eventually, into an emotionally fraught journey into independence, strength, and a fragile adulthood. Most importantly, it rings true: Mac is as comfortable writing about the wilderness as she is exploring the internal world of a teenage girl, and the combination of the two is enthralling and devastating.