Sometime in the 1980s, an edition of Douglas H. Thayer’s Summer Fire was published bearing a jacket blurb, written by Orson Scott Card, reading, “I have never read a better Mormon novel.” His calling it a “Mormon novel” makes Summer Fire a problem for a critic like me, who knows better than to imagine myself qualified to address specifically Mormon qualities in the art I write about. Yet I want to talk about my experience of Summer Fire and I hope to do so without trespassing any boundaries. Fortunately, there are several profiles of Douglas Thayer online, available for readers who want a verifiable, well-founded account of the Mormon contents of his various books (see here, for example).
Thayer’s major accomplishment in Summer Fire is the convincing three-dimensionality of his characters, who are not found in only a few narrow types, though they do tend to illustrate certain familiar characteristics. Owen Williams, the naive protagonist, is about to turn 16 and is the paragon of a devout family in Provo. At the outset, we meet what appear to be Owen’s four great formative influences: his uncle Mark, who has arranged a summer job on a hay ranch in Nevada for Owen and his cousin, Randy; his mother, who worries that the job will take him away from his piano practice; his Aunt Susan; and his grandmother, whose priorities for Owen include his coming birthday, his ordination to the priesthood, and a Duty to God Award expected to arrive any day. Thoughts of these four, supported by his memories of various members of the Provo community, will form the bedrock of Owen’s character as he encounters the real life challenges that lie ahead.
Owen’s cousin and companion for the summer, Randy, is a couple of years older, affects a Stetson hat, has a girlfriend to see him off, wishes they could overnight in Las Vegas to see the Strip, and tells Owen his plans to earn a sportier upgrade on the VW he’s been promised as a reward for a successful summer. Randy will provide contrast for his cousin, whom Randy thinks could be a little more flexible in his ethical code and conduct.
Owen and Randy won’t see their families again until the final chapter, by which time both young men will have lost some youthful arrogance, though what they’ve learned looks likely to fit comfortably into their future nostalgia. They have been sent to work on a hay ranch, to learn about earning and managing money, of course, but also to face challenges that will “make men of them.” To that end, hard work and the real-world business of fighting fires, suggested by the book’s title and foreshadowed throughout, make up what are supposed to be the bulk of their lessons. But most of what one learns through hard labor and dangerous undertakings cannot be learned by reading about them, so we readers see those lessons at a distance. Anyone who doesn’t know how to bale hay or build a fire break will not learn those skills here. Meanwhile, Owen’s more vivid, and often more entertaining lessons come from close interaction with Stan and Frank, the permanent crew of the Johnson Ranch, and their more distant and authoritarian boss, the mercurial and mephistophelian Staver. Stan and Frank vary in their suitability to father the impressionably vulnerable young men, but finally what decides for them is their necessary loyalty to Staver, with and for whom they must work for the rest of the year and every following year after the summer temps have departed.
Here, readers who may have become accustomed to feeling themselves to be ahead of those they read about — a common, if by no means universal quality of many books today — may instead have the experience of sharing Owen’s learning process. In particular, there are the questionable pedagogic methods employed by the older men to impart life’s lessons to those they must train, while relying on them for help with the work, all the while knowing these greenhorns will soon enough return to a comparatively cosy and well-off life. Among other devices, this involves feeding them some fabulous tales — about exploding animals, barbed-wire decapitations, and spectacular events, which stories begin in mock-serious lessons given to the neophyte ranchers “for their own good,” and gradually draw in the youth, and perhaps a reader or two who, when they sooner or later catch on, may find themselves flashing back to a younger time in their own lives.
Counterbalancing such pleasures, though, are Summer Fire’s real limits. This is a tale about boys learning to be a kind of man now generally discredited, at least for an audience of readers. It’s arguable that even in the 1980s such stories had overstayed their utility, and today few readers will find anything in it worth the tedium and repetition, broken up but not relieved by occasional moments of distress. On that note, Summer Fire contains scenes of such brutality to animals that I won’t describe them here, because to do so would require me to see them again in my own mind. I don’t tell readers not to read, any more than I tell art lovers not to look. In this case, though, I feel strong cautions are in order. The people in this book come out well, by and large — in fact, most of them better than they probably deserve. It’s Nature that absorbs the blows, with nary a mote of sympathy in sight.
To celebrate our XX anniversary, 15 Bytes is looking to the past for inspiration. On the last Sunday of every month this year, we’ll be taking a look at a book, by a Utah author, that appeared before we did. If you have one you’d like to suggest, please use the comment section below.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.