The Fireman's Wife: A Novel by Jack RiggsThe Fireman's Wife: A Novel by Jack Riggs

The Fireman's Wife: A Novel

byJack Riggs

Paperback | December 30, 2008

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It’s June 1970. As the low country of South Carolina burns in a seven-month drought, Cassie Johnson longs for escape: both from her husband, Peck, the town’s newly promoted fire chief, who seems more interested in saving everyone else’s life than in living his own, and from the low country marshes where Cassie has never quite felt at home. But as Peck and Cassie drift apart, their teenage daughter, Kelly, finds herself torn between her parents and her desperate need for normalcy. It will take a tumultuous journey back to the North Carolina mountains before Cassie can begin to understand the complicated love that resides, unrecognized, deep in her heart.

From a masterly voice in Southern fiction, The Fireman’s Wife is an emotionally bare and moving novel about one woman’s struggle to do what’s right–for her family, for her love, and for herself.
Jack Riggs's writing has been published in The Crescent Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Habersham Review, and Writing, Making It Real. In 2000, he was selected as an "Emerging New Southern Voice" at the Millennial Gathering of Writers of the New South at Vanderbilt University. He has been a finalist in the Glimmer Train Fiction C...
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Title:The Fireman's Wife: A NovelFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:352 pages, 7.99 × 5.2 × 0.74 inShipping dimensions:7.99 × 5.2 × 0.74 inPublished:December 30, 2008Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345480066

ISBN - 13:9780345480064

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Read from the Book

Cassie   I AM A PASSENGER in my own car, eyes closed, head lying against hot vinyl as Clay Taylor drives south through Murrells Inlet toward Litchfield. Even with all the windows down and Clay easily doing sixty miles an hour along the straight stretches, the heat feels oppressive. Sweat pours off my neck. It trickles down the small of my back, sticks my legs to the plastic seats. I try to imagine sitting here naked, the top of the car ripped away so that the breeze would become a tornado and blast away the heat. But I don't think even that would bring relief.   It's June in the low country of South Carolina. The heat should be just starting to build in for the season, but instead it feels like it never left from last year. It's been hot and dry for so long, nothing wants to move, animals are laying down dead, the salt creeks drying up to nothing. Peck talks about the drought all the time, seven months and counting. He's a fireman and feels the heat in ways I could never understand. He's nervous about the dry land, worried that a fire will take off and he and his crew won't have enough bodies and equipment to put it out.   The music on the radio is something Kelly insists we listen to, rock and roll, a scratchy man's voice screaming out who'll stop the rain? The song is annoying, makes me wonder when the rain might actually come. Everybody who lives on the marsh year-round prays for as much water as possible to fall from the sky. Some are even joking a hurricane would be welcome relief.   The storm season started a couple of weeks ago, the Gulf Stream warming up, pulling bad weather from the far side of the world toward us. It's the serious season mixed into the tourist one, but people down here aren't thinking straight when they talk about hurricanes like that. Peck tells them to be careful what they ask for.   The drought's put a sharp edge on everyone except Clay. He's not talking about rain. He's driving with his elbow hanging out the window, both hands on the steering wheel, a cigarette pinched between his lips. He's going on about us all taking a trip to the North Georgia mountains where a tightwire walker will, in a month's time, cross Tallulah Gorge using only his feet and a pole to hold him there.   He's been talking nonstop ever since we left Garden City Beach because Georgetown Steel is fabricating the cables to be used in the crossing. “That walk across the gorge is going to make history,” Clay says, the tip of his cigarette bobbing in the air. “And we're a big part of making it happen, Georgetown Steel. You got to go, won't see anything like it ever again, not in your lifetime.” I say nothing, letting the smoke from his cigarette swirl in the breeze around me. “Besides, it would be easy” he says. “I'll come up from Walhalla, pick you and Kelly up in the morning, and drive on over. It's not that far from the Highlands.”   I raise my head then, nervous that he's looking right at me, not watching the road, and Kelly right there in the backseat hearing everything. “It's not the Highlands,” I say. “It's just Highlands. You're being lazy with that, you know.”   The car's tires hum along the packed shell and gravel road. I shade my eyes to read the sign just past Pawleys Island telling us Georgetown is still fifteen miles away. I smile, reach over to touch him so he won't be offended by the mild scolding. “Let's just wait and see,” I say.   I don't tell him that I've seen acrobats before on The Ed Sullivan Show, a man walking a wire, bouncing for a moment before turning a somersault and landing again on his feet. This is different, though. There is always a net on TV, the distance only ceiling to floor in some television studio. Clay says the gorge is a thousand feet deep in places, and one small mistake, one slip or miscalculation …   I lift myself up in the seat, find sunglasses on the dashboard, and then turn to face Kelly. She is stretched out, eyes closed, though I know she's not asleep. She has heard every word about Tallulah Gorge and how Clay plans to visit me in Whiteside Cove when I take her up to visit Momma this summer. When I tell her to sit up and rejoin the living, Kelly just lays there, eyes closed, her softball glove propped on her stomach like it's the very thing holding her down.   The land outside the back window runs away from me simmering in mid- afternoon sun. The whiteness of the road, the sand edging along its shoulder, stands in stark contrast to the brown beyond. Here, away from the ocean and salt creeks, trees seem to wilt, shrubbery, salt myrtle, straggling cordgrass, all dry and brittle.   Once Kelly's song is through, I run the dial, find a crackling AM station trying its best to keep Marvin Gaye tuned in. Clay lights another cigarette, the blunt end of the lighter flaming when it touches the tip. I smile and sing along. “Ain't no moun- tain high, ain't no val- ley low …”   Our hands touch palm to palm as he passes the filterless cigarette to me. It's then I hear Kelly turn over in the backseat, the words good God tumbling out of her mouth in what I know is disrespect. The harsh smoke burns my throat. I hate the habit, the nastiness of the taste, but the nicotine has its effect, and I lean again on the seat letting the song and cigarette be enough until we are across the Intracoastal Waterway and into Georgetown, where my baby girl will be an All- Star pitcher this afternoon.   We find the field squeezed in between steel and paper mills, smokestacks belching black and gray soot into a sky already filled with an uncomfortable haze. Kelly won't talk to me when we park the car, just gets up from the seat and runs out to the field where her coach gives her a ball, lets her know she'll pitch the first three innings. The Bel Air sits beneath a small stand of trees where Clay spreads a blanket, unfolds lounge chairs for us to sit in while Kelly's team takes the field.   I watch her on the infield dirt, so much like Peck, her arms and shoulders strong and balanced, skin the color of honey. I'm as white as sun- bleached shell, skin too pale to do anything but burn if I'm outside too long. Worshipping the sun was never part of growing up in the mountains. Whiteside Cove was breezy, cool enough even in midsummer to wear long sleeves by late afternoon, a sweater at night. Here along the salt creeks and beaches, the sun demands that you disrobe to nothing, sink knee- deep into black mud, dig out oysters, or empty crab pots. Seining nets are like bridal veils thrown into creeks capturing shrimp and minnows, their transparent bodies nearly invisible in the turbid muck. It is all part of the land's requirement that you become a living part of the rivers and creeks. But it has never been very livable to me. It is unbearable at best.   I watch Kelly warm up, so poised and unafraid at fifteen, so much like Peck. I wonder if she even needs me. I remember after she was born, how Peck could calm her when she cried, the way he would carry her outside onto the dock by the marsh or drive along the beach until she fell asleep. When Kelly was old enough to walk, he took her to play in the ocean and later taught her to surf and fish, catch crabs or dig for clams at low tide. They were inseparable. When I began our trips back to the mountains to get away from the heat and the marsh, her time away from Peck was tolerated. And even though I know Kelly loved being with her grandmother, the mountains were just too far away. She would climb up Sunset Rock or to the top of Whiteside Mountain, look as far east as she could, take a deep breath only to announce that there was no smell of the ocean in the air, and that would seem to negate the legitimacy of our stay. Low country is in her blood, but not a drop pulses through me. It used to disturb me to think Kelly was more Pecks than mine. It used to tie me up in knots for days, but now it seems to matter less.   I have read in magazines that everyone has the right to go and find themselves, do your own thing, they say. I tried talking to Clay about this when we stopped for lunch today, but Kelly was mad at the world because Peck wasn't the one bringing her to the game. She was just ugly—not a good way to start out my new life, but I didn't care. I ignored her, ate my Hardee's hamburger, and told Clay that today was the first day of the rest of my life. I said, “I feel like Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”   Kelly looked up from her meal then, said, “Momma, seagulls are dumb birds. All they eat is other people's trash.”   Jonathan Livingston Seagull was an assigned book from Kelly's high school English class, so I know she read it. I know she doesn't think that about Jonathan because she's the one who told me to read it. Right then she was just so angry at me. I told her to shut up, said, “You know what I mean.” Clay sat there with the dumbest look on his face. A fireman like Peck, I don't think he's read a thing since college, unless it had something to do with smoke and flames. “I feel free,” I said, looking at both of them. “I just feel free, that's all I was trying to say.”   I watch seagulls differently now, the way they float out on a breeze, cut loose, free. No limits, Jonathan, that's what the book said. I don't want limits either, no matter how mad Kelly gets at me.   She's on the mound when a gust of hot wind gets itself tangled up on the infield, the sand and shell surface whipping up into a small tornado. The girls cover their faces with gloves, arms over eyes until it passes, leaving the air dusty and parched.  

Bookclub Guide

1. Early in the novel, as Cassie is about to leave with Clay, she hesitates. “Clay Taylor is a fireman too, and what good would it do to live with him, trade one fireman for another?” Do you think she’s running away from Peck himself, or from his way of life? In what ways is Clay a better, or worse, choice for her? How would Cassie and Peck’s marriage have been different if Peck hadn’t been a fireman? 2. Cassie feels trapped by the low country in which Peck and Kelly thrive, while Peck is uncomfortable at Meemaw’s house in the mountains. Talk about the ways in which landscape and environment affect and define each of the characters in The Fireman’s Wife. How do you feel your own life and personality have been shaped by the environment in which you grew up? 3. The book begins, and ends, with Cassie thinking about the Great Wallenda’s tightrope walk across Tallulah Gorge. What symbolic significance does this event hold in the novel? How does the meaning of the tightrope walk change for Cassie by the end of the book? 4. Cassie explains, “Peck always told me that in a fire there’s nothing good for anyone, not those caught in it or those that have to fight it.” What larger significance does this statement have for the events of the book? In what ways does Cassie’s decision to leave Peck resemble this kind of fire? 5. There are several different kinds of parent- child relationships in the novel: Cassie and Kelly, Parker and Cassie, Pops and Peck, etc. Even Peck and Cassie have very different approaches to parenting their daughter. How do these family relationships affect the individuals involved, and how could each be improved? What do you think makes each of these parents and children treat each other the way they do? What lessons can be learned from these relationships? 6. “Momma used to say children were empty vessels that we fill.” Do you agree with this statement? What evidence does the story offer for and against this idea? 7. Peck’s first emergency call is for a child who died because his parents weren’t paying attention–ironically, this call takes him away from an important moment in his own daughter’s life. In what ways do the series of fire calls narrated in the book reflect on Peck’s and Cassie’s own lives? How do they add to and deepen the meaning of the novel? 8. Clay tells Cassie, “I don’t think anything could make you happy.” Is that true, do you think? What is Cassie looking for? Do you think she’ll ever find it? 9. Peck is surrounded by old friends like Teddy, and an alternate “family” of sorts at the firehouse; Cassie spends most of her time alone, or clashing with Kelly. How do you think this influences their different outlooks on life? 10. Meemaw, Cassie, and Kelly are each very different women. Discuss the ways in which their passions and personalities repre­sent the worlds in which they came (or are coming) of age. 11. What do you think attracts Cassie to Clay? Do you ultimately think he is a sympathetic character? Why or why not? 12. When Peck apologizes for taking Pops to a nursing home, Pops explains that “a man builds his home in his heart.” How true do you think this is for the other characters in the novel? What symbolic role do physical houses–Cassie and Peck’s house on the marsh, Clay’s rented cottage in Walhalla, Meemaw’s little house on the dis­puted land in Whiteside Cove–play in the lives of their inhabitants? 13. The story takes place in the summer of 1970. Why is this timing important? How would Cassie’s and Peck’s lives be different if their story were happening today? 14. Cassie is a headstrong character, with stubborn opinions of her own–yet she is always quoting the thoughts and comments of the men in her life. In what ways is she passive, and in what ways is she active? How does her passivity contribute to her frustration, and is there anything you think she could have done to resolve it without leaving Peck? How does this frustration play out in her relationship with Kelly? 15. Cassie says, “I’ve come too far, even if I fail, to give up trying now.” She says this about running away with Clay, but could it be applied to her life with Peck as well? Do you agree with her statement? Is it a good principle to live by? Why or why not? 16. The novel’s title is The Fireman’s Wife. Ultimately, whose story do you think it is–the fireman’s, or his wife’s? In what ways is it accurate, or not, to define Cassie as mainly a “fireman’s wife”? Does this change as the novel progresses?

Editorial Reviews

"Read The Fireman's Wife, a book so beautifully crafted and compelling you can't put it down, and see for yourself why Jack Riggs is a writer on his way to the top. The details are so vivid in this unforgettable book that you'll never look at the working lives of firemen, or their families, in the same way."—Cassandra King, author of The Sunday Wife“Jack Riggs’ The Fireman’s Wife is the kind of book that reminds you of the reason you love reading – a story wonderfully told, with memorable characters and tense and tender moments. Written in the first person voices of Cassie and Peck, it examines the fragility of a woman caught between her history and her uncertainty – a story that suggests a smattering of experiences we’ve all had in one fashion or another. Riggs is an accomplished story-teller and a splendid writer and The Fireman’s Wife is a book you will happily share with reader-friends.”—Terry Kay, author of The Valley of Light“Jack Riggs has written an honest, brave, riveting, and heartbreaking novel about relationships, loyalties, betrayals, and transcendence. The Fireman’s Wife is a great book, full of heart and, ultimately, hope. You will not want to put it down.—Connie May Fowler, author of The Problem with Murmur Lee and Before Women had Wings“The Fireman’s Wife is a compelling portrait of an unraveling marriage. Jack Riggs' empathy for his characters, coupled with a refusal to judge them, gives the novel an integrity that makes this story all the more memorable.”—Ron Rash, author of Serena