The images and stories coming out of Fort McMurray, Canada this past week have been heart-rending. Nearly 90,000 people evacuated. A modern city emptied of all but firefighters, police and paramedics. The hospital evacuated. Long lines of cars inching along the highway while the fire rages on both sides. Dogs, cats, horses, children, parents — all running for their lives, all trying to keep each other safe and unafraid. Small communities opening their doors to strangers, offering food, a bed, a sweater, a shoulder to lean on.
I’ve never been to Fort McMurray. Never been in a forest fire, yet when I heard one couple saying, if they couldn’t get through, they planned to ditch their car under a bridge and hope they could escape the fire in the river, I understood. You see, I read it once, in a book. Mrs. Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman was one of the first love stories I read, and re-read, and re-read, and . . .
The book was published in 1947. There are no extra pages, no biography of the authors, no notes on the text. There was still a wartime shortage of paper when this book hit the shelves in it’s plain green cover and uncoated pages. Yet the writing is so vivid, I knew exactly what that couple looking at the bridge were thinking. There is a scene in the book were the heroine is standing in an icy river, holding a baby while fire rages all around. “The flames shot up along the river like a ragged fringe. . . . Hot ashes were falling and burning me. The air blistered my face. My eyebrows and lashes were singed. My face and throat burned; my body was numb with cold.”
When I saw the couple who considered taking refuge in the river, this passage sprang to mind. Written nearly seventy years ago, it still resonates.
Fortunately for the people of Northern Alberta, we have planes and helicopters and convoys to get them out. For Mrs. Mike and her Mountie husband, they had only themselves, horses and canoes. But the fear, the suffocating smoke and the sense of awe in the face of forest fire are the same. It speaks to the power of good story telling that Mrs. Mike, a romance, remains in the top 20 of Amazon’s Literature and Fiction> Classics category.