Who by Fire – Fred Stenson

Who By Fire CoverWho by Fire

Fred Stenson

359 pages, Doubleday

 

A Human Face for a Complex Issue

A surprising number of the world’s most destructive conflicts can be related in one way or another to differences of opinion over how to manage the Earth’s non-renewable resources. Heated disputes over the ownership, use and fate of fossil fuels rage across scientific, political, economic, historical and cultural boundaries — damaging individual and community relationships as surely as tailing ponds contaminate nearby flora and fauna. Fred Stenson has brought the destructive power of these debates and arguments to a human level in his latest novel, Who by Fire (named, like Leonard Cohen’s song, from the Hebrew prayer/poem “Unetaneh Tokef”).

Bill Ryder is just a boy when a sour-gas plant opens downwind of his parents’ southern Alberta farm. Poisonous gases released during a series of plant malfunctions make the family sick — particularly Billy himself — and threaten the health of the farm animals, and therefore the Ryders’ livelihood. Intensifying the devastation, Billy’s father’s decision to stay on his land and fight the gas company gradually pulls the family apart, and drives a wedge between the Ryders and other families in the community – almost all of whom who have  benefitted economically from the presence of the gas plant.

It is an ironic side effect of the family’s deterioration that as an adult, Bill ends up working as manager of an oilsands upgrader in northern Alberta. Now close to retirement, his choice of a career in the petroleum industry seems to have betrayed everything his father stood for — or failed to stand for. Bill’s life has been marked by a self-torment that has manifested itself in a gambling addiction and an apparently endless cycle of bad decisions. And then, at last, a crisis at the upgrader forces him not only to confront his past, but also to face himself.

Stenson is the highly regarded author of the acclaimed historical novels The Trade and Lightning, as well as of five other works of fiction and seven of nonfiction. In this new novel, he brings his enviable writing talents — which include the ability to create memorable, flawed and sympathetic characters, and an uncanny facility for evoking in a few words not only the landscape of the province of Alberta (no matter what the season or terrain) but also his deep affection for it — to bear on issues that face us all. We are the Ryders, growing sicker by the day from our over-reliance on gas and oil, but we are also the community that shuns the Ryders: our economic well being, too, depends on the continuing exploitation of our fossil fuels.

Like the unknown Jewish poet who long ago presented so many possible scenarios in response to the question of “Who will live and who will die?” —

Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst? ….

– we realize that any outcomes to this conflict over oil and gas will not be straightforward, or painlessly accomplished. And in the meantime our hostility and indecision are not only ravaging the Earth, they are also eroding our humanity.

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