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Three Million Acres of Flame – young adult historical fiction

Three Million Acres of Flame is the latest Young Adult novel by Canadian author Valerie Sherrard. She has written several other novels for this age range, including Speechless, which we really enjoyed and reviewed here. It’s always wonderful to have a chance to read and review a second book by an author. This time Sherrard has created a fictionalized story that commemorates a part of Canadian history that is often overlooked – the Great Miramichi Fire of 1825. She participated in an interview about the fire, as a part of her book tour. Using a time of crisis and tragedy as a backdrop, Sherrard paints a portrait of a family coping with both big and small problems.

Valerie Sherrard writes some details of the fire in the Author’s note:

The Miramichi Fire took lives [more than 160]. (Among them, a number of my ancestors.) By the time it had run its deadly course, it had burned one fifth of the province – more than three million acres of land. It destroyed buildings, possessions, livestock, and provisions. It left many facing the winter ahead both homeless and impoverished.

The rest of the author note describes in greater detail the facts of the fire and its aftermath. The fictionalized account of the Haverill/Drummond family in Three Million Acres of Flame follows the events of the Miramichi Fire as they really happened, with suspense, fascinating details, and a tender feeling for characters.

At first, the Haverill/Drummond family seems like many families in the 1800s. A widower with a son and a daughter marries a widow with one son, and they try to blend the two families together. Skye is still mourning her mother’s death, feeling that her father married again too quickly. While Skye feels a close bond with her brother Tavish and her father, she wants nothing to do with her new step-mother and new brother Stewart. Skye and her brothers feel like authentic teens – complaining about each other and their parents, teasing, and feeling as if they are the only blended family in the world. Skye goes to school, chatters with her friends about her problems with her step-mother and Stewart, and then does the chores that are needed on a farm. These are warm, normal characters with whom you can easily relate.

The first few chapters lay the groundwork for the rest of Three Million Acres of Flame, molding the characters into unique individuals with their own strengths and before the fire comes. Sherrard helps us understand the world of 1825 – class differences, chores, church, and the town of Newcastle in general. As time passes, Skye starts to grudgingly accept her step-mother and enjoy the warmth and freedom of August. There are day-to-day problems, such as her sadness that her Uncle William (her late mother’s brother) is moving out of their home to work in a logging camp, Tavish developing a crush, and her step-mother is expecting a baby.

Everything changes on October 7, 1825. The dry weather and heat had created the perfect environment for a fire, and the entire population of Newcastle flees from the fire into the Miramichi River that separates their town from neighboring Chatham. Chaos breaks out as separated family members try to find each other, and townsfolk walk the fine line between being in the river deep enough to escape from the flames, but not so deep that you would drown.

Skye’s heart had just started to heal from her mother’s death, and now she has to deal with the deaths of people close to her and the anxiety of not knowing the fate of others. Sherrard writes the novel using the third person, so we can see the aftermath of the fire from Skye’s perspective, as well as her brothers’ perspectives. Once the flames are gone, the inhabitants of Newcastle need to cope with finding places to live and food to eat for the upcoming winter. Sherrard’s storytelling ability is amazing, bringing me to tears several times as I read about the fates of the townspeople and the hardships they had to endure. My heart swelled, though, as I read about the generosity of other Canadians and the townspeople helping each other.

Three Million Acres of Flame is a multi-faceted, intense read. While at first glance it looks like a “disaster book”, it really tells the story of a “normal” family living through extraordinary times. Sherrard doesn’t make her characters infallable, instead she breathes life into them as she shows Skye’s jealous streak, Tavish’s tenderness, and Stewart’s propensity for teasing as we follow a year of their lives. Using strong female and male characters to drive the story, the reader ends up learning about a compelling time in history as well as becoming invested in what happens next for each of the characters. It felt like I had walked into the 1800′s and visited with friends.

I highly recommend Three Million Acres of Flame for the young adult audience (boys and girls), as well as for adults. There are some graphic descriptions of the aftermath of the fire, so I would not suggest it for tweens. While parts of the book are quite sad, this is not a depressing book at all. Valerie Sherrard has done fantastic work with this engrossing novel, it was very difficult to put down!

This book was received from the publisher for review

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