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"Dad taught me everything I know. Unfortunately, he didn't teach me everything he knows."
– Al Unser  
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  Volume No. 15 Issue No. 6 June 2018  

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Front Page   |   Feature Stories   |   Search This Issue   |   Log In
  “The Arsonist”
  By Robin Widmar

   The first thing you need to know about “The Arsonist” is that the story actually has little to do with serial fire setting. Yes, there is a string of intentionally set fires that rocks a small New England community’s sense of security. But in this book by best-selling author Sue Miller, a woman’s struggle to identify her place in the world shares the stage with a father’s losing battle against Alzheimer’s disease.
   Francesca “Frankie” Rowley has spent 15 years as an aid worker in Africa. She returns home in search of something she can’t quite identify, with “home” being a tenuous definition. Her family didn’t spend enough time in any single place to plant roots, so the familial summer cabin in Pomeroy, New Hampshire, is the closest thing to a permanent home that Frankie has ever known.
   Frankie is uncertain about whether she’ll return to Africa, but she also doesn’t know what else she might want to do. With her aging parents retiring to the summer home and her sister’s family fixing up a place down the road, Frankie decides to try living in Pomeroy; while she figures out what to do with the rest of her life.
   Pomeroy is a stereotypical small town that is changing as more “outsiders” decide to call it home. The general store still provides a place for residents to meet and chat. The police force still consists of a single member who acts as the street cop and the police chief. But attendees at the traditional Fourth of July Tea no longer wear their Sunday best to the event, and tensions are increasing between the moneyed summer people, whom Frankie refers to as “refugees from New York and Boston,” and the often less affluent permanent residents.
   Frankie ponders this conflict, comparing it to the class differences she experienced in war-torn, third-world African countries. There, the “have nots” were mired in violence, starvation and misery; while the “haves” –- which included aid workers –- lived in secure, walled compounds with plentiful food, water and domestic help. Having returned to the United States during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Frankie is astounded at the extensive news coverage surrounding it. “How can this be what Americans are talking about,” she says, “… when there’s so much horror in the world?”
   Bud Jacobs owns, edits and writes for the local newspaper. When he meets Frankie at the town’s Fourth of July fete, there is immediate mutual interest but also mutual reservations. Frankie still feels the ache of a recent failed relationship, while the twice-divorced Bud is trying to shake the label of “womanizer” that local gossips have foisted on him. The two begin a tentative journey into a passionate affair that spans a hot New England summer but stops just shy of the “L” word.
   Meanwhile, Frankie and her family must contend with her father’s increasing mental lapses and, ultimately, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Sadly, Alfie is aware of his deteriorating cognitive abilities, telling Frankie, “I know what’s happening to me... . Odd way. To disappear.”
   Her mother, Sylvia, personifies a life that didn’t go quite as planned. Hers is a tale of young love pre-empted by college ambition, and life plans derailed by children and a husband’s nomadic teaching career. Sylvia’s point-of-view narrative is laced with thinly veiled bitterness over the sacrifices she has made. At times, she seems envious of Frankie’s freedom to choose where to live and whom to love. After Alfie wanders away from the cabin and triggers a community-wide search effort, Sylvia dutifully considers pulling up stakes once more so that her husband can receive the care and supervision he now requires.
   Throughout the story, the title arsonist torches more than a dozen houses and outbuildings, including a barn on the Rowley property. The fact that the “summer people” own most of the buildings intensifies the friction between permanent and seasonal residents. Town hall meetings are held, citizen patrols are formed, and neighbors start to eye one another with suspicion. Who is the firebug in their midst?
   Eventually, an arrest is made, but community opinion remains divided about whether the right person was apprehended. Were there valid reasons for the suspect to possess certain items confiscated as evidence? Was the accused set up to take the fall for someone else? Did the suspect act alone? Was the confession a willing admission of guilt or a coerced statement? The story ends before the trial begins, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.
   The motive behind the fires is also left unresolved, as is the ultimate fate of Frankie and Bud’s relationship. Each has contemplated whether to leave Pomeroy or stay put; and, by the story’s end, each has made a decision. The last few paragraphs of the book, however, foreshadow a future that seems to contradict those decisions; yet, makes perfect sense for these characters.
   What doesn’t quite make sense is the portrayal of human reaction to the fires. Miller deftly navigates the issues surrounding life with an early stage Alzheimer’s patient, and shines a light on societal class differences; but misses an opportunity to explore the lasting psychological trauma that can result when a serial arsonist ignites one house after another in a small community. Even when the Rowleys’ barn burns, Sylvia and Frankie voice the obligatory thanks that no one was hurt and then casually go on with life as if nothing happened. The incident simply fades into the background instead of solidifying into another unsettling link in a long chain of frightening events.
   Part mystery, part romance and part social commentary, “The Arsonist” is a thoughtful work told through the distinct perspectives of Frankie, Sylvia and Bud. The pacing is steady, and Miller’s rich but efficient prose engages all the senses. Many readers can relate to the book’s multiple themes: carving out one’s own niche in the world, finding love in the midst of life’s crossroads and dealing with a family member’s debilitating illness. The challenges that arise from a small town’s population growth might resonate with longtime Falcon residents who have seen their own sleepy community swell with new residents, homes and businesses.
   Perhaps the most significant issue that Sue Miller addresses is also a simple question: Can you go home again to a place you only knew on a part-time basis?
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