In Honour of Women’s History Month, a Review of an Inspirational Woman Writer’s Memoir, Fighting Fire, by Caroline Paul

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Available from her website: 

And from Amazon:

“Just as we reach the corner of the hall, and feel the fire off to the left, we run out of hose. We strain against it, hoping that it is momentarily caught, but it isn’t, we’ve just come up short. So we hunker down. The black settles on us like a wide hot sea, the heat on us, lazy kelp. John swings the water in a wide loop to cool us down. The water falls back searingly hot; it sneaks into my collar and down my back. When orange flashes above us, fleeting shadows of color, I point upward even though I know John can’t see my hand.” (Page 151).

As a firefighter, Caroline Paul rescued people from burning buildings, assisted in arson investigations and provided urgent, life- saving medical care to the people of San Francisco, not all of whom were grateful. She is a real life hero, and also a writer, but she had to fight for this privilege.

“The two separate worlds of firefighting and film school offer an odd symmetry, anvil-shaped, as if to make a place on which to hammer my indecision into some definable form. At once I see the perfect crossroads in a heretofore jumbled lifestyle. Documentary filmmaking represents my East Coast, WASP background. Here lies responsibility, social status and intellect. On the firefighting side of the anvil hangs something darker, more primal. It represents impulsiveness, rebellion and instinct—the part of me that flies planes, rafts rivers, climbs onto steep slippery roofs to look at stars. But this part of me has never been taken too seriously. Certainly it’s not something I should base my life on. Right?” (Page 18)

Although creative non-fiction, the “plot” arc of Fighting Fire and its “characters” are just as engaging and well written as in a novel. Caroline Paul began her adult life as a graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Communications. When she heard that the San Francisco Fire Department were recruiting women she decided to apply, more on the off chance that she could turn it into a media story than anything else. But when she passed the entrance exam, she decided to continue. To her surprise, she was one of the few who made it into the academy, and the fire house. A tough, heady battle in itself, requiring immense physical strength and stamina as well as determination and personal bravery. She became one of the few female firefighters to pave the way for similar recruits, and to turn the messy history of the San Francisco Fire Department–a place where women and minorities were traditionally not welcome—around.

“It is 1988, and there are six women already in the department. They came in, under controversy, two years ago. I have not met them, but at the test practices, we whisper about them sometimes, wondering how it would be to have been one of the first. There is a secret relief that we are not treading a completely new path, that there is a slight trail through the thicket for us. ‘Slight’ is an overstatement: there are six women out of 1500 men. The trail is barely visible.” (Page 17)

She’s a woman writer who should be applauded for her bravery, not just in telling her story, but also for living it. Her memoir is written with humour, humanity and includes lots of intense drama and action making for a gripping yet poignant read. She talks about the struggles she faced as a young woman trying to pave her own way in life, to decide who she was, who she was not, and what went into these decisions. The fact that this included becoming a female firefighter only makes it more memorable.

Caroline Paul works out of the Writer’s Grotto in San Francisco. In addition to Fighting Fire she has written East Wind, Rain, a historical novel about events on the Hawaiian island of Niihau in 1941 and a memoir, Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology.

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