Up from the Ashes
Book review by Jude Joseph Lovell
“Armageddon ain’t supposed to be fun,” an elderly man reminds a small-town politician (and the reader) in Burn Scar, a new novel from T. J. Tao. I have to wonder, What about extremely tragic natural disasters? Because there were times as I read this fiction debut when it felt like I was having a little too much of a good time.
But credit Tao—an entrepreneur and writer who, with his family, survived one of the most horrific wildfire disasters in history last November—for successfully achieving that particular alchemy that all good novelists possess. In Burn Scar, Tao takes a horrifying experience that most readers will never understand and transforms it into an engaging page turner. Anyone who thinks this is easy has probably never attempted to write a novel.
Burn Scar also raises intriguing questions about fact versus fiction—how writing stories can facilitate an individual’s capacity to process and learn from an actual traumatic experience, and even pass those lessons on. But before I get into those, a brief summation is in order.
This novel’s primary narrative details how the members of a fictional township in Idaho band together—or in some cases don’t—to survive the near-apocalyptic effects of an historically destructive wildfire that suddenly threatens to obliterate their entire community. It’s hard to believe, especially for someone like me from the East Coast, how fast and aggressive wildfires can be. But the descriptions in Tao’s novel pull the curtain back on this awesome force of nature in vivid fashion. As Tao explains in an Afterword, the goal was “to take [readers] into the fire,” and on the whole the writer pulls this off skillfully.
I also appreciated the way the story of the fire is framed within the context of a local civic drama. Rather than just lighting the spark, as it were, and having the reader witness how individuals and small groups figure out how to fight the fire, Tao introduces us first to small-town politics, convincingly portraying the conflict among various officials over an ambitious sewer project.
The mayor and town manager of Genna, Idaho, aspire to force the project through in order to gain voter confidence and advance their own careers. But others strenuously object on fiscal grounds, not to mention the fact that the project’s execution hinges on using the government’s power of eminent domain to take over land rights—essentially kicking people out of their homes.
When the fire begins, some of the open issues pertaining to this project are decided directly. But the situation also generates opportunities for certain types with questionable motives to use the tragedy for their own nefarious ends.
This additional element spurs the novel forward and also reflects the writer’s apparent interest in the way smaller civic governments operate. A fair argument could be made that this also creates the conditions for Tao to hastily draw up battle lines between “bad guys” and “good guys.” Indeed, there are a few “enforcer” characters in the story that I felt were somewhat thinly imagined. But Tao is simply applying storytelling techniques in order to render the broad scenario more palatable for readers.
Burn Scar’s pacing and readability are quite assured, more than one might expect from a first-time novelist. The situation itself naturally creates drama as the fire rapidly spreads and threatens a huge swath of the township. But Tao’s deft toggling between everyday citizens, heroic first responders, and the political figures allows us to grasp several aspects of such a tragedy at once.
The descriptions of the progress of the fire are harrowing. Who has not pondered from time to time the terrible beauty of fire itself? It makes for a riveting, not to mention humbling, reading experience to attempt to place oneself in the shoes of people like, well, the author. How might we respond in the face of a merciless, elemental enemy that spreads at “around three football fields per second,” let alone the surging nightmare of something called a “firenado”? (Which is apparently exactly what it sounds like, also depicted with frightening majesty here.)
There are notable imperfections in Burn Scar, most of which are editorial in nature. The novel appears to have been self-published by Tao, which has resulted in some errors—some are nitpicky, others more significant. How these affect the overall experience will depend on the individual reader’s forbearance.
For me, these were largely overcome by the pace of the story and the palpable creative energy on display. Not every tale worth telling must bear the official imprimatur of big publishing houses from the West or East Coasts. The devastation of this extraordinary event has clearly marked T. J. Tao forever, and in passing such a story on to the public, the novelist has created an enduring tribute to real-life survivors—and victims.
It seems to me, therefore, that Burn Scar is best understood as both a satisfying, visceral thriller and a striking exhibition of the power of storytelling. Here, readers may learn something about both the natural world and themselves.
This is what we look to artists to deliver, but sometimes it comes at a price. Here, the reader comes away with an appreciation of what the author went through. As the novel puts it about one character, “He was a writer; he coped with it the only way he knew how.”
Photo by TJ Tao.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.