Winner of the 2009 British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, short-listed for the 2008 Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize
Thousands of boys dream of becoming firefighters. Some get the chance, and for some of those, the dream becomes a nightmare.Burning Down the House is the story of Wangersky’s eight-year career as a volunteer firefighter, an experience that wound up reaching into every facet of his life and changed the way he saw the world forever. Written in vibrant, luminous prose, the book traces his years from rookie to veteran firefighter and the toll it took on his personal life. Offering a rare glimpse into physical dangers and psychological costs of trying to save strangers’ lives, Wangersky paints a harrowing and sometimes heartbreakingly vivid portrait of the fires, medical calls, and automobile accidents that are the standard fare of the profession.
Visceral and affecting, Burning Down the House is an insightful insider’s account of the perilous world of firefighting and an unforgettable memoir of how, in finding his passion, Wangersky lost himself.
This is a book about the deleterious effects of maintaining professional silence regarding one’s own traumatic experiences. Burning Down the House may be an act of exorcism for its troubled author, but it is also a compellingly candid, incendiary narrative of emotional and mental decline.
...a master storyteller with a keen eye for the critical details that bring his written descriptions to life as cinematic scenes.
(An) astonishingly insightful and harrowing depiction of modern-day fire-fighting...an account so relentlessly lucid and visceral that the reader emerges from the experience almost as exhausted and traumatized as the writer himself.
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.
Burning Down the House is such a raw book, one that lays bare both terrible moments in time and the author's own unravelling. Over and over, he breaks down a blaze or a crash, probing its anatomy, its beginning and its end. This is a cautionary tale, one you might want to give to a teenager newly licensed to drive, or to a man who thinks he drives better with a few beers under his belt, or a woman who has removed the batteries from the smoke detector because it goes off when she fries bacon. I was left with a powerful sense of just how fragile the human body is, how vulnerable to tons of metal and rubber moving along at 120 kilometres an hour, how sometimes nefarious in nature is the "red devil" called fire. Accidents portrayed on film and television somehow seem neater, certainly quieter. Crash victims don't scream all the while they're being rescued, but some do in this book. If I thought "the jaws of life" always get that trapped driver out quickly, I don't think that any more. I would have wished for even more from the author on the actual physics of fire, while the material on his personal torments (the doubting, self-loathing and self-absorption) was almost too much to bear. But when Wangersky is rushing to the scene of a house in flames or to carnage on a dark county road, he is an all-senses-charged witness with an unerring eye for detail. In this haunting meditation on fate and chance, he literally takes you there.
Russell Wangersky's book about his years spent as a volunteer firefighter, first in Wolfville and then Newfoundland, is so cinematically vivid—you can almost smell acrid toxic smoke and imagine human pulp on the highway...