Booktalking "Firehorse" by Diane L. Wilson
Imagine a world where horses pull fire engines, hoses and firemen, galloping to fight fires and save lives. Imagine a place where "ready-made" clothes are the talk of the town, and women gasp at the prices, where dalmatians nip at the heels of horses to make way for the fire horses, where a working "woman writer" at the Bostonian newspaper Argus is scandalous, and Rachel's father wonders who is taking care of the children, and who is cooking for her husband. The women of the family counter that he does not even know if she's married. Girls are not supposed to witness births, get dirty, or ride astride (sidesaddle is ladylike). Girls are not supposed to witness the devastating effects of fire on the fire horses, and they are definitely not supposed to assist the vet in saving horses. Riding astride is not decent, and Rachel's father insists that she should at least wear shoes. Girls are supposed to wear corsets, cook, and take care of men. Such is the world of Rachel, 15-year-old fire-haired girl, in America in 1872.
Rachel loves the fresh air and freedom of her Saturday races on Peaches, her favorite chestnut horse, with the train. The sound of galloping hooves, the feel of her horse beneath her, gives Rachel a sense of peace that is lacking elsewhere. When her father loses his job, and the family moves to Boston, Rachel and her 19-year-old brother James become entranced in the world of the fire house and fire horses. Rachel meets a fire mare who pulls the fire engine in her mind all of the time, yearning to spring to action in case of fire. She is volatile and hostile at times, and a burning ember fell on her from a burning barn because the driver parked her too close to the flames on a fire call. Will Rachel get through to the mare, and will the mare's own resilience pull her through to recovery when the best horse of the fire engine company is reduced to a burned, swollen miserable thing?
The writing level in this book is superb, the complexity of which is probably meant for 11th or 12th graders. The concept is unique, and I love the historical fiction aspect of this novel, which is set in the late 19th century. It's incredible to think that what we take for granted now was so much work and worry for humans that lived not so long ago. Now, if I leave the light on accidentally when I go to sleep, the only thing I have to worry about is wasted electricity. In 1872, Rachel worried about accidentally leaving a lamp on, engulfing the house in flames and bringing her entire family down with it. She checked multiple times, even though she knows that she already checked to see if the lantern was off. An oil spill from the lantern in the dark of night in the barn immediately ignites on the floor, which a quick-thinking lad immediately suffocates with buckets of water. Life seems a lot safer nowadays.
Rachel's love for horses is awesome and elemental. She relates to horses in a way that one cannot relate to people; the relationship is qualitatively different. I can definitely relate to her connection with animals, given that I have been riding and interacting with both horses, cats, and dogs for years, and I similarly feel a love for the connection with the being that is fundamentally different than humans.
Interestingly enough, the book has some autobiographical elements, since the author is red-haired and currently has a chestnut Arabian mare. In addition, it is a historical novel about the Great Boston Fire of 1872 in the Victorian Era. Diane Lee Wilson read many historical novels in preparation for writing Firehorse, and she also was able to use the diary of a 14-year-old girl who lived in Boston during that time for information about daily life then.
The novel is wonderfully descriptive; you can almost feel the fire that Rachel gallops through to save the veterinarian's horse, and her descriptions of her own nausea and burns almost made me want to vomit or faint. In the novel, strangles (or distemper), which is a highly contagious, deadly equine disease, spreads through the city. It is very interesting to me how the city of Boston literally comes to a standstill without the horses, which pull the horse cars (like modern day buses or trains), transport milk and ice (people cannot eat perishable food without the horses), and pull the fire engines (the fires then endanger people's lives like a wildfire since they spread if the fire equipment can't get to the fire to quell it). People take to walking as a new mode of transportation, eating preserved food, and fearing for their lives. Fires of livery barns where horses live definitely do not help the situation, and word on the street is that it is a case of arson. The book includes talk of love between brother and sister, a girl and her grandmother, and a lot of a girl and veterinarian with their horses. It also includes the mystery of the arsonist's identity and a possibly conspiracy between the arsonist, the editor of a small newspaper, and the firefighter who begged for the badly burned horse Governor's Girl's life.
"Everything was wrong. Firemen were setting fires and journalist were printing lies and Mother was cooking for people who would never arrive. And even though this was the quietest of November evenings, with stars just beginning to poke through the graying sky, I knew a storm was brewing. I just knew it."