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Fire, Devastation and First Love: National Book Award Nominee Dark Water

November 1, 2010

 When author Laura McNeal was nominated for a National Book Award a few weeks ago for her young adult novel, Dark Water, I immediately knew I wanted to feature her on our blog. We received a copy of the book introduction below with our advanced reader’s copies many months ago, and I was so moved by the genesis of the book that I picked it up and read it that same day. I have lived in San Diego for almost 10 years and during that time, the county has had two major wildfires and countless other smaller fires. The devastation to homes and businesses has been overwhelming, and twice, when I was away on business trips I was forced to call my husband and talk him through what to pack if we had to evacuate. Fortunately, our home has been safe, but as Laura writes below, many others have not been spared.

In addition to perfectly capturing the terror that comes with living through a ravaging wildfire, Laura sensitively portrays the budding romance between fifteen-year-old Pearl and Amiel, a migrant worker who works for her uncle. Pearl’s relationship with her family is complex and believable.  The confusion she feels about falling in love with a boy from a totally different world than hers highlights issues of race, social class and illegal immigration in a non-preachy way. I wish I hadn’t finished this book on an airplane because I could hardly read through the tears pouring down my face. It is that beautiful and moving.

Please enjoy the back story to this powerful novel. I know it will compel you to read it, too.


This book started with a fire.

When we went to bed on October 21, 2007, two wildfires were rolling through southeastern San Diego County like molten lava, one called Harris and one called Witch Creek, both of them at least sixty miles away.  It was a dry night in the driest year on record.  Wind flew screaming down the chimney, smacked the glass, tore the awnings, and hurled bark at the house.

At 2 a.m., an explosion lit up our bedroom and the electric clock went dark.  I panicked, which is my role throughout fire season, and my husband remained calm, which is his role.  After Tom sensibly adjusted the batteries in our flashlight and emergency radio, we heard a fire captain say that no one could stop a wall of flame eighty feet tall.  A new fire had blown to life, and it was closer—but how close, we didn’t know.

When the sun rose, the sky was turquoise, and brown clouds boiled up from the east.  We kept Sam and Hank, who were seven and nine, home from school just in case.  Fallbrook is hilly and agricultural, spread over fifty-six square miles, and there are essentially two ways out, one of which was about to be blocked by fire.

On any given day in Fallbrook, you can see migrant workers, some of them in their teens, some older, riding their bicycles up steep hills to work in avocado groves, yards, or plant nurseries.  Some are searching for work, going grove to grove, locked gate to locked gate, pushing the call buttons to ask, “Any work for me?”  Some live in apartments with cousins and brothers, some stand on corners with fifteen to twenty men and wait for a car to slow down and hire one or two for the day to move furniture or dig trenches.  Some live in gullies where the trees are thick.  Those without papers know they can be arrested at the grocery store, while riding their bicycles, while standing at day-labor corners, or on the sidewalk outside of Blockbuster, but they usually have families in Guatemala or Mexico, and to earn money is why they came. 

I didn’t think about these men until later, when I wondered how they learned about the fire and how they left town.

My husband Tom, despite his no-panic nature, decided to fill the truck with gas, so we all went together.  Lines of cars already snaked out of all the gas stations in town.  He saw that we had a flat tire, so we waited for the repair, watching more cars join lines outside gas stations that would by late afternoon be drained of fuel.  Fallbrook schools, we heard, were now trying to close.  Tom put the Important Document file in the truck.  He called his mother, who is eighty-seven and lives next door, and she filled a suitcase with photographs dating back 120 years.  At about 1 p.m., the reverse 911 calls began, automated calls telling everyone in Fallbrook—forty thousand people living on mostly rural, dead-end roads–to evacuate.  If you had a land telephone line, you’d get that call.  If you lived in the gully, of course, you wouldn’t.

Tom drove the five of us through air the color of cinders to an island in San Diego Bay where we had a beach house.  The sun was fuchsia and porch lights came on midafternoon.  We’d never bothered to get satellite or cable TV at the beach, so we kept the radio on.  The radio news, however, was almost always about the enormous Witch Creek and Harris fires, which together would incinerate 1,246 houses, kill seven people, and injure seventy-three firefighters.  Five hundred thousand people had fled from 346,000 homes in San Diego County, where the number of fires was still multiplying. 

Late that night, another Fallbrook family, our friends Todd, Bia, and 9-year-old Gabriel, came to stay with us.  Now there were eight of us in the house.  At 4 a.m., Todd drove back to Fallbrook with his off-road motorcycle strapped in the bed of his truck.  He often rode to places you couldn’t reach by car, and that was what he planned to do now: cross the boundaries of the evacuation and check on our houses.

Two hours later, Todd called.  Bia and Gabriel were still asleep.  Tom was on the freeway, trying to get to work.

“Your house is fine,” Todd said.  “Tom’s mother’s house is fine.  I got through on my bike and checked.”

“And yours?” I asked.  Their house was on a hill even steeper than ours, on a street called Daisy Lane.

He paused for just a second.  Then he said, “It’s gone.”

For five days, the fires burned and burned and burned.  At noon, the sky was beige or apricot.  After sunset, a deep starless brown.  Every school in the county closed.  My mother-in-law put together puzzles on the porch, assembling the borders first.  Todd called insurance companies.  Bia went shopping because Todd had left the house without a single change of clothes.  My husband tried to work between frightening conversations with his brother, who had stayed in Fallbrook to defend his own house and nine acres of avocados from fire that now crept, unaided by wind, through dense, flammable brush. 

For the three boys, one of them newly homeless, it was like a snow day without snow—flecks of black and white powder in dangerous air, dull empty streets, the ashtray scent of smoke.  They had to stay inside and write book reports assigned before the world caught fire or play video games Gabriel had packed into one of his two suitcases.

One afternoon, Tom got a cell phone call from a man I’ll call Gustavo, who rides his bicycle to work in groves and gardens seven days a week.  I’m the family translator, so Tom passed the phone to me, and when I asked Gustavo about his escape from the fire, he said he’d gotten a ride to a nearby town, but his cousin had gone back to Guatemala. 

“Because of the fire?”  To me, this seemed a little too far to go.

“No,” he said.  “La migra.”  What Gustavo and his cousin feared most was being arrested and deported.  For them, the exits were also checkpoints. 

On Sunday, October 28, the National Guard removed roadblocks at the eastern edge of Fallbrook.  We went home to nothing worse than a hundred ruined condiments and the thawed, leaking side of beef we’d bought at the Ramona County Fair.  The electricity was still off.

Our friend Todd, however, drove his family up a steep hill to Daisy Lane and stood on a tangled plate of melted appliance wires and crusty ash.  The edge of his infinity pool reflected a standing black chimney and a torched palm.  The gazebo, oddly, was fine.

Gustavo went back to work, but his cousin remains to this day in Guatemala.  When we finished cleaning ash from the house, I read every newspaper article and fire blog I could find, trying to piece together what had happened. I read that four charred bodies—three men and one woman—had been found in a wooded area east of San Diego, not far from the Mexican border.  It was not known when or how they died, but the area was believed to be a migrant camp.

The day I read this story was the day I started writing Dark Water.


—Laura McNeal

Fallbrook, California

For more on Laura McNeal and her frequent co-author and husband Tom, please visit their website.


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