It is no secret that I rather like the books and short stories of a certain Joe Hill.
This time last year I was preparing to go to a Q&A at Foyles in London.
He is the only Author on this planet who has ever drawn a monster in my book and offered me a battle axe to pose with in our selfie… So to say he holds a special place in my heart is an understatement, so I fully expected to enjoy the latest offering :
I did, but NOT because this is a Joe Hill book that I was predisposed to like ( And as with other favourite authors, willing to overlook minor niggles in the process).
I do not précis plots in books preferring to allow folk to discover the story beyond the jacket blurb for themselves. It is enough to say I absolutely loved this book for the purity of the story despite it’s complexity. It is undoubtably the most complex of his books so far, touching on themes of
It has a really interesting protagonist,Harper Grayson, nee Willows (this will become important on reading the book) is a brilliant creation. Married to the slightly overbearing and infinitely opinionated Jakob, she is on the frontline of the onslaught that the seemingly unstoppable contagion
Kind hearted, she cries at kittens and tots in the commercials, but is unfailingly steely in her dedication to her role as school nurse as the book opens. Her Mary Poppins Lunchbox, containing chocolate bars, a radish and a potato are her weapons against youthful tears when pain and fear hit, but no amount of delicious produce will prepare or protect her or the entire world for what is to come.
When the school, like the rest of society becomes a breeding ground for the disease, she drops all , risking her own infection daily to assist at the hospital where the infected are congregating, lost, Afraid and devoid of hope. A devotee of what I am going to call brisk Poppins -esque efficiency and propensity to drop "Mary" into conversation, It is at the Hospital that she meets The Fireman, a surly brash man of Mystery who brooks no argument when he brings a small child into the ER. A Brit into the bargain, it is no surprise she will be intrigued and attracted by his lack of fear in the face of a frightening scourge and the adventure really begins.
Her story arc goes from unsuspecting Victim,to supplicant and finally to a flaming Amazon of righteous fury.
Harper is my kind of Gal. Interesting that this is the second Hill book in a row where a female is the main narrator! ( A reason why I love it so much perhaps ? )
The References Harper invokes to counterpoint her thinking and beliefs are perhaps even more delightful to me in particular as I sense with relish that Joe Hill and I might be able to converse easily over a really good cup of tea and talk about all that is so clean cut American and yet so secretly British and lovable about his heroine!
The books and songs and joys she revels in are in part , things that I suspect Mr Hill himself also gets an immense delight from (even if he is gently mocking of saccharine sweetness and that chipper stiff upper lip of Brits in popular culture !)
Other characters range from the requisite truly Abhorrent creatures to the more insidiously frightening zealousness of the inevitable “Saviours” who seek to cleanse society of all that might besmirch, on both sides of the apocalyptic divide and what an INTERESTING apocalypse it is!
The Dragon Scale phenomenon is a truly BRILLIANT device and catalyst and is all at once Evil, Good and something much more visceral that is neither, it is almost a metaphor for Human frailty which is neither Good nor Bad and a clear sign that Mr Hill is only ever getting better as he gives us another cracking story to devour and much to ponder in our own daily existence within the fast, frenzied and fickle world where we are all connected by gadgets across oceans, able to communicate instantly, aware of every facet of each other’s lives in the moment, but never a fully cohesive group.
It is a story that loudly and with shockingly clear tones resonates with anyone who has felt they are outside the pack. It demonstrates with some worrying clarity the way that groups of humans will ALWAYS descend into hierarchies, where the party line is heralded and even innocent descent is looked upon as threatening and even dangerous.
Anyone who has seen prejudice meted out for things totally outside a person’s CHOICE, be that racism, sexism or even the societal mores set by the well meaning ruling classes will see echoes in the story here. Be it nationally, globally or within that Slow cooker group you joined for a recipe for chicken wings that now collectively shouts at you that you are an idiot for wrapping your potatoes in foil when you bake them! We seek approval from our peers and when it is withheld for things that seem wrong in our our assessment, we become a target for unwarranted attack.
It speaks to the paranoia that seems prevalent, particularly in so called “civilised”countries; where fear of difference , fear of what is not “Us”, the people we pigeon hole as “them” because we think they might take from our mouth, our home, our faith. When really, we are all as Humans subject to the same trials, fears and tribulations wherever we were brought onto the planet and whichever deity we call to in our times of need.
If this was only a sad indictment of the modern human condition wrapped up in an apocalypse story, the book would not have been half as satisfying. I think Conversely it spreads hope that there is true strength in togetherness, in the purest intentions to maintain community and that doing the right thing, that the best of people normally comes when they are in the direst of circumstance, when parity is thought long since departed and when adversaries seem to be all around, that simple kindnesses, doing what your own moral compass dictates as right is often the difference between survival and destruction.
I cannot review this book without a passing comment to some of the inevitable comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand, particularly in view of the fact that The Hand of God comes into play. There are some correlations between the two stories, two factions based in near proximity, the good guys led by an ultimately flawed but highly spiritually motivated female matriarch leading to a final confrontation with a sacrificial imagery akin to a crucifixion.
However this is not a copy of Dear Dad’s story. The Stand is one of my top three King books so any form of copying would grate ,even when that imitation is by someone as skilled as Joe Hill. The similarities are there, but I think accidental and the depth and breadth of the thematic aspects and the rollicking good story of The Fireman , I think surpasses that of the Stand. Here a much shorter book, packs a veritable punch!