Clare Frank's Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire is a heart-racing, heartfelt story that will make readers laugh, cry, and consider what matters most in life. The author is an indomitable character, from self-supporting teen through a decades-long career in California firefighting (beginning in 1982, when women were few and generally viewed askance), with impressive achievements in her career and personal life. Frank's memoir is packed not only with adrenaline but with sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and creativity. Beware the impulse to race through these 300-plus pages in a single sitting.
After talking her unorthodox parents into emancipating her at 16, Frank becomes a firefighter at 17 (faced with an age requirement of 18, she simply leaves her birthdate blank on the employment form). Despite being "the youngest, shortest, and lightest person in an academy for the brawniest of professions," she is indefatigable: stubborn, hardworking, short-fused, and tenacious, earning nicknames like Flipper, Tiger, and Poindexter--as well as degrees in fire administration, law, and creative writing--along the way. Frank rises through the firefighting ranks in her 33-year career (with a five-year doctor-mandated medical break), finishing with the lofty position of State Chief of Fire Protection, six ranks above captain, the highest she once thought she would be willing to attain. She works on structure fires and wildfires, in small firehouses and large ones, in the field and in positions of leadership, on labor and legal issues, prevention, forestry, and more, across the behemoth California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, aka Cal Fire (the largest fire department in the state).
While she does meditate on firefighting's gender issues, her response to the question for much of her career is encapsulated in an anecdote: "While I pulled hose through tangled manzanita, the reporter jammed a microphone in my face and yelled, 'What's it feel like to be a female on the line?' I yelled back, 'The same as it feels for the guys, except I have chee-chees.' " She hoped that if she ignored what made her different, everyone else would as well--a strategy that worked frequently but not always.
Frank is a renegade overachiever in all areas: athletic, career, and (after a late return to the classroom) academic. Her writing is not merely serviceable, but thoughtfully constructed; her memoir's sections are labeled for stages of fire development: ignition, sustained heat, free burn, growth, full development, and decay. Fire is present in every aspect of Frank's life and work, including writing, but this always feels natural rather than effortful. By the end of this memorable book, readers will reconsider fire policy as well as family, risk, and hard work. With thrilling momentum and a heat of its own, Burnt is a sensation and an inspiration. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Shelf Talker: This exceptional memoir shows wide emotional range in spanning the complexities of firefighting and fire prevention in California and the American West, gender issues, family, work, love, and loss.