A debut novel about the passionate loves and tragic losses of six generations of women in a family of firefighters, spanning from famine-era Ireland to Brooklyn a decade after 9/11.
A debut novel about the passionate loves and tragic losses of six generations of women in a family of firefighters, spanning from famine-era Ireland to Brooklyn a decade after 9/11
"There isn’t anything in the world that hurts like a burn.” No one knows the pain of a fire more than the women of the Keegan/O’Reilly clan. Kathleen Donohoe’s stunning debut novel brings to life seven unsentimental, wry, and evocative portraits of women from a family of firefighters.
When we meet Norah — the first member of her family to move from Ireland to New York — she is a mother of three, contemplating her husband’s casket as his men give him a full fireman’s funeral, and faced with a terrible choice. Norah's mother-in-law, Delia, is stoic and self-preserving. Her early losses have made her keep her children close and her secrets closer. Eileen, Delia’s daughter, adopted from Ireland and tough-as-nails, yet desperate for a sense of belonging, is one of the first women firefighters in New York. It is through her eyes that we experience 9/11, blindsided by the events of that terrible day along with her.
Poignant, wise, and immersive, Ashes of Fiery Weather is a tour de force in the tradition of Let the Great World Spin, one that explores the emotional wounds and ultimate resilience of those drawn to fire, as well as the many ways we search for each other, and the many ways we hope to be rescued.
Chapter One: Norah O’Reilly
The bagpipes took up “Going Home” as the firemen bore the coffin out of the church.
Norah O’Reilly paused on the threshold of the heavy double doors, thrown open as they’d been on her wedding day, a gray November morning, altogether better suited to the end of the story than this soft April afternoon. A warm spring rain had begun to fall during the Mass.
Norah scanned the faces of the assembled firemen, three deep from the curb to the street, skipping the mustached, the older guys, the not-tall, the dark-haired, the obviously non-Irish, the ones in white caps, who were the officers. She didn’t see Sean. She saw Sean a hundred times.
Cameras flashed as she stepped fully outside. For eleven years, she’d been an understudy in this play, but she’d never once rehearsed. She didn’t know her lines, forgetting the names of longtime friends, missing cues, blinking stupidly at outstretched hands and stepping into hugs moments too late. Wherever she went, she left whispers in her wake. Poor Norah.
This morning, while savagely biting the tags off her new black dress, she’d resolved not to cry in public. She would be brave. Not like a fireman, but like a Kennedy. The Kennedys were always burying each other. They knew how it was done.
In the crowd, Norah spotted Amred Lehane with his hand over his heart. He knew, of course, that civilians were not supposed to salute. Amred, the buff. She recalled Sean explaining that to her. A buff was a fire department fanatic. They often knew more about the history of the department than the guys themselves. Some buffs were attached to particular companies, like Amred, who belonged to the Glory Devlins and whose insistence on calling them by the company nickname instead of the number was so strong that the men had caught the habit.
The firemen who had not come into the church for Mass, the ones who hadn’t known Sean personally, and those from other cities surely spent the service having a breakfast beer across the street in Lehane’s, the bar Amred and his sister owned. Amred would have told them how Sean used to bartend there, that he and his Irish wife had met there. Poor Norah. She supposed that was her name now.
The men eased the coffin down the steep steps of Holy Rosary. Norah knew that they would not let go of Sean, but rather than watch, she lifted her face to the sky. Happy is the soul rain falls on. An Irish proverb. Rain on the day of a funeral was good luck.
She sensed her brother’s eyes on her. All three of her brothers had traded Galway for England. Two had called to tell her how they’d liked Sean the time they met him. Only Cathal got on a plane.
Norah told their parents not to come. Her relieved mother promised to have a Mass said for Sean in their own church. Her sister, though. On the phone, Aoife made no mention of emergency passports and plane tickets. She only cried and said she’d have Noelle make a sympathy card for her cousins. Aoife’s daughter was ten, a year older than Maggie.
Norah started, then looked for the children. There were three, yet in four days they seemed to have multiplied, surrounding her with their confused blue eyes and moving mouths. Four-year-old Brendan was clinging to the skirt of her dress. Surely she’d had hold of him most of the way down the aisle. When had she let go?
She pried the fabric out of Brendan’s fist and grasped his hand so hard he looked up at her in surprise. His hand was mucked with chocolate licorice, which she’d trusted would keep him occupied during Mass, even though the smell made her sick. Her dress, long-sleeved and too warm for the day, was tight over her breasts, which were already fuller. Nobody knew.
Aidan stood beside Brendan, wearing the suit and tie he’d worn this past Sunday, for Easter. Aidan would be eight in a month. Norah located Maggie slightly behind her and reached back with her free hand, but Maggie shied away and then stared back at Norah, daring her to beckon again. Maggie, as the only girl, believed she was Sean’s favorite, but it was Aidan who was his heart.
Maggie and the boys had Sean’s eyes, a striking blue a shade darker than her own. Maggie glanced at her grandmother, wanting to be her ally instead of Norah’s, but Delia, her gaze fixed firmly ahead, didn’t seem to notice.
Suit yourself, Norah thought and turned around.
Sean’s eyes were his mother’s eyes. Delia O’Reilly, beautiful still at sixty-five. She’d been an elementary school principal, formerly a teacher, and there was something in her bearing that suggested it, Norah often thought. She expected to be listened to. Sean had often called his mother brave. Back in the 1950s, not many people got divorced. Sure as hell nobody Catholic, he’d say. Many of her students had come to the wake, clearly self-conscious in their dress-up clothes, passing right by Norah. The boys kept their hands in their pockets as they mumbled that they were sorry. The girls had more poise, but it was easy to tell the ones who’d never been to a wake before by the way their wide eyes couldn’t leave the open casket. Former students had come as well, college-aged if not in college, and they shook Norah’s hand and told her they remembered Sean coming to their classroom in his uniform, and they remembered visits to the firehouse.
Norah, too, remembered Sean saying these kids pulling the fire alarm boxes accounted for probably half their runs. Delia would say that’s why it was important that he talk to them. He would shake his head, but he never said no to her.
The coffin arrived at the bottom of the steps and Norah started down, going slowly, for Brendan. She sensed her brother tense. Cathal was ready to grab her arm if she stumbled. The cameras clicked in chorus. Aidan pressed Sean’s helmet against his stomach. She made a mental note to be sure to let Brendan get a chance with the helmet. She would make Aidan give it to him as they were leaving the cemetery, when the pipers began “Amazing Grace.”
A few members of the FDNY’s pipe and drum band had played at their wedding too, though Sean hadn’t been a fireman yet.
He’d been waiting to get on the job, increasingly worried that the city’s money troubles would keep it from hiring more firemen, needed as they were. When he did get called, only a few months after the wedding, Norah had been too relieved to fret about his safety. A better paycheck and a steady one, she’d thought, as though he’d been hired to sell insurance. They could move out of his mother’s house and into an apartment before the baby came.
Cross Hill Cemetery had been closed to new burials for a decade at least. But an exception was being made so Sean could be laid to rest, as the priest put it, near his grandfather and great-grandfather, firefighters both. The newspapers were making much of it. “Legacy of Bravery,” said one headline.
And, of course, Eileen was in the papers too. The articles about Sean all mentioned that his sister had joined the class-action lawsuit against the FDNY and that she’d graduated fr...
One of Brooklyn Magazine's "100 Books to Read for the Rest of 2016"
One of BookRiot's “100 Must-Read New York City Novels”
“Ambitious…unexpectedly revelatory...Ashes of Fiery Weather is worth every moment…To try and summarize the plot is to minimize its sweep. Suffice it to say that these women's lives will stick with you, as will the insights gained into the firefighters' tight community. I'll be waiting for Donohoe's second novel.”—MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
“Explosive [and] expansive… There is a great deal of world and family history behind each individual's actions. . . . It's hard to imagine this expansive, accessible book won't find its audience, especially since it's coming out on the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of 9-11. The writing is at times beautifully spare, and Donohoe has a knack for capturing heartbreaking moments with a gripping simplicity.” —THE VILLAGE VOICE
"A stunning and intimate portrayal of four generations of New York City firefighters that puts women at the forefront… Absorbing and compelling, Kathleen Donohoe manages to tell a decades-spanning story of firefighters that also puts female characters at the forefront… Donohoe’s opening section is an emotional tour-de-force, exploring beautifully this most harrowing moment of Norah’s life, as well as the circumstances that led to her emigration… Ashes of Fiery Weather also manages to capture the poetry of daily Irish Catholic life… Extraordinary. Ashes of a Fiery Weather somehow manages to be part Alice McDermott, part Denis Leary, and ultimately a worthy addition to the canon of great New York ethnic novels." —IRISH AMERICA
“Each element—Donohoe’s attention to women’s experiences, to the momentous events that become historical markers, to place (Brooklyn) and profession (firefighting), to Irishness in its many variations, to inheritance and loss, to the bleeding out of history—makes a constellated portrait of a place and time and position in the world.” —BROOKLYN MAGAZINE
“Her characters navigate turbulent historical events, including the Irish potato famine and the devastation of 9/11, and Donohoe vividly brings each period to life. But the novel's special strength lies in the quiet moments between characters: intimate exchanges and daily decisions that often ignite far-reaching changes in their lives. Family, love and legacy are complicated entities, and Donohoe skillfully portrays her protagonists' struggle with each.” —SHELF AWARENESS
“A beautiful family tale built as much out of disconnection and alienation as out of intimacy and solidarity.” —BLOOM
"Kathleen Donohoe’s stunning debut novel brings to life seven unsentimental, wry, and evocative portraits of women from a family of firefighters."? —THE MISSTERY
"Compelling...one of Donohoe’s many accomplishments in this excellent book is that she brings these Brooklyn Irish firefighters -- male and female, by the way -- into the 21st century.” —IRISH CENTRAL
“Donohoe’s debut novel was one of our favorite books of August, what with its feats of firefighting daring-do and emotionally complex characters that we grow to know over the novel’s decades-long span.” —READ IT FORWARD
[A] big, rich, powerful novel . . . You’ll be a long time forgetting it. And glad of that.” —SULLIVAN COUNTY DEMOCRAT
“What makes Donohoe’s novel stand out from other family sagas is the authentic insight she brings to her work. . . The crowning achievement of the book, however, is Donohoe’s unaffected and chilling portrayal of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Although readers will know what is coming, this does nothing to dim the force and shock of Donohoe’s depiction, told through the eyes of Eileen, one of the many firefighters on-site that day. . . . Donohoe has created an emotional, deeply moving work that will stay with readers long after the last page.” —BOOKPAGE
“I have immense love for this debut novel about six generations of women and their connection to the New York Fire Dept. The writing is lush and lovely even and most especially when the story is at its harshest and most unforgiving.” —EARLYWORD
“Donohoe takes us through emotional turmoil, tenderness, and tearful realities. A wonderful storyteller, the century-plus the book spans is a fascinating and accessible glimpse into a life many of us don’t recognize.” —READ IT FORWARD
“Donohoe presents readers with richly imagined portraits of seven women who are linked with the Keegans and O’Reillys by blood, marriage, or love…Donohoe’s writing is both beautiful and riveting…A worthy novel.” —HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY
“Breathtaking…The child of a family of Irish-American firefighters, the author shows how tradition, sorrow, and love of the old country bind these lives together. Her depiction of 9/11 is by far one of the best fiction accounts of that terrible day in which 343 members of the FDNY perished… Her novel is a moving testament to the men and women who risk their lives every day.” —PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY
“One of my favorite reads of the year! This is a gorgeously written story about what it means to have men and women in your family that put their lives on the line everyday as firefighters. It's about the incredibly rich history of New York and its deep relationship with Ireland as seen through the eyes of the Irish who for generations have crossed the ocean to start over in America. It is about the people we love, the choices we make and the strength of the blood ties of family. An absolute gem!” —Mary Coe, FAIRFIELD WOODS LIBRARY (CT)
“No synopses can do this book justice. You simply must read it. This debut from Donohoe is absolutely stunning and for everyone who remembers that day, you understand why that cover brings chills to my body.” —Beth Wasko, BOOKTRIB
“This is the sort of family saga that you just sink into and give yourself over to. The writing is lush and lovely even and most especially when the story is at its harshest and most unforgiving.” —DARIEN COUNTY LIBRARY
“[Ashes of Fiery Weather is] riveting…and…entrancing….Adding to the book’s power are the authentic Brooklyn details, making the borough a compelling character in itself. That the author grew up in such a family makes her work that much more realized with strongly developed supporting characters, gritty realism, and a non-Hollywood-style ending… Admirers of Pete Hamill and Kate Atkinson will appreciate this gripping and intimate novel, as well as those who want an absorbing multigenerational read.” —LIBRARY JOURNAL, starred review
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