________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 34 . . . . May 7, 2010


After the Fire.

Becky Citra.
Victoria, BC: Orca Books, 2010.
186 pp., pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 978-1-55469-246-0.

Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.

Review by Meghan Radomske.

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.

***½ /4.


Was it a real bow? Melissa couldn’t see any arrows. She glanced around, suddenly feeling nervous. Something caught her eye. She stared at a clump of reeds at the edge of the lake, taking a few seconds to realize what she was looking at—the side of a blue canoe.

Prickles shot up her spine. The person who owned all this stuff must be somewhere on the island right now, maybe even hiding close by in the trees, watching her. Melissa spun around and ran back along the trail, scrambling over the boulders and logs. She tripped over a root and sprawled on the ground, feeling a sharp sting in her knee. Shakily she got up and kept running, not stopping until she was back at her canoe.

She stood there for a moment, catching her breath. Then she untied the rope and climbed in, her heart thumping wildly. She hated the thought of someone spying on her. More than anything, she wanted to get away.


Eleven-year-old Melissa is waiting for her life to improve. She has no close friends, her little brother Cody whines and misbehaves endlessly, her mother mortifies her, and they have little money. Ever since a fire traumatized her and her family, she has been eagerly awaiting her mom’s promises of a better life. Melissa is sensitive about the scar on her hand—a result of the fire—and she’s embarrassed by her mother, Sharlene. Flashy and friendly, Sharlene works as a janitor at Melissa’s school and chats exuberantly to strangers. Sharlene’s extroverted character juxtaposes Melissa’s introverted shyness, creating an underlying tension that feeds the narrative and reflects many mother-daughter relationships. When Melissa spots a brochure for a summer art camp at the local laundromat, she longs to go in order to escape her family responsibilities and immerse herself in her favourite hobby—art. When Sharlene informs Melissa that they will be spending August at a remote lakeside cabin in British Columbia, she dreads the long days and boring family time.

     However, when Melissa and her family arrive at the cabin, she soon starts to enjoy herself and is surprised to discover her mother’s skill in using camp-stoves, making bannock, and fishing. Sharlene offers Melissa her very own bedroom, which is a novelty after years of sleeping in the same room as Cody. Melissa soon learns to canoe, and on a trip to the island in the middle of the lake, she meets Alice—a girl her age from the mysterious Hope family who live on a ranch on the other side of the water. Melissa is excited to finally have a close friend even if Alice is bossy, a bit odd, and preoccupied with writing a fantasy novel.

     Melissa is taken in by Alice’s idealistic stories of her close relationships to her fun-loving older brother and high-powered mother, comparing them to her less-than-perfect family. Melissa soon realizes that Alice has secrets when she begins to catch her in little lies. She is also surprised when Alice reacts favourably to Sharlene and Cody—questioning why Alice should enjoy spending so much time with them if she has such a great family of her own. As Melissa learns more about Alice’s home life and spends more time communicating with her own family through playing late-night games of Boggle with Sharlene and teaching Cody how to swim, Melissa begins to realize the value of her family. Becky Citra reveals how a family broken by a harrowing experience can heal through time, communication, and nature.

     Citra delivers a poignant, well-paced story about family and friendship and how they are molded by traumatic events. Pre-teen and teen girls will recognize and relate to the power struggles and tensions that Melissa experiences both with her mother and with Alice. Citra manages to weave heavy topics into the story naturally, including alcoholism, poverty, cancer, suicide, death, and depression. She balances the ever constant threat of danger, symbolized by the spreading forest fires in the area, with the peaceful setting of a luscious Canadian lake in mid-summer. Anyone who has ever heard the call of a loon at midnight, battled mosquitoes on a warm summer evening, or enjoyed a refreshing dip in cool lake waters during a heat-wave will appreciate this story in its capability to invoke nostalgia. The setting is reminiscent of Kit Pearson’s A Handful of Time. The image chosen for the cover—of a woman paddling a canoe on a serene lake—is appealing and attractive. However, if one were to judge a book by its cover, the image would suggest that the protagonist is in her late teens or early twenties and be surprised to discover young Melissa starring in the tale.

     Citra’s After the Fire is a delicious summer read that expertly contrasts the tensions between the characters with the peaceful image of a summer-time cottage on a lake. The book wraps with a satisfying and hopeful ending that affirms the human capability to persist and succeed through the hardships and difficulties that life may present. The book is an engaging story—an ideal recommendation for girls looking to read through the long summer nights.

Highly Recommended.

Meghan Radomske is a student in the Master of Library and Information Studies Program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.