Residents in a town on fire must choose what matters

THOSE WHO FAVOR FIRE By Lauren Wolk Random House 374 pp., $24.95

The title of Lauren Wolk's first novel, "Those Who Favor Fire," comes from Robert Frost's famous poem, but her story had its genesis in a newspaper article about a small town in Pennsylvania that was sitting on top of an underground fire in an abandoned coal mine.

Wolk explores the question of what kind of people would remain in a town threatened at any moment with extinction, and how living with this threat might affect their daily lives.

Wolk calls her fictional town Belle Haven. The name is both ironic (in view of the smoldering inferno) and commendatory (in honor of the kindly, decent people who make this town a safe and welcoming place to live). By 1983, when the novel opens, the fire has been burning for 13 years. Most of the townsfolk have learned to live with it - or, at any rate, managed to convince themselves they are not in imminent danger. They like living in Belle Haven, and thus far the sudden, terrifying eruptions of heat, smoke, and flame have been confined to the town's remoter outskirts.

Rachel Hearn remembers how the fire broke out in a garbage dump the year she was 10. Born and raised in this town, she cannot bear the thought of leaving it.

The only child of devoted parents, Rachel was the kind of daughter who more than repaid their devotion, always ready to sacrifice her own whims and wishes in deference to their plans and desires for her.

Much as they loved Rachel, her parents were not so possessive or overprotective as to deny her the advantages of going away to college in New England, where, unfortunately, a handsome, callous fraternity boy cruelly abused her innocence. As if this were not enough, while attempting to pull herself together after this ugly incident, poor Rachel learned that her parents had been killed in a car accident. Changed forever by these shocks, Rachel returns to Belle Haven, the one place on earth where she feels safe.

Kit Barrows has come to be in Belle Haven quite by accident. The pampered son of a wealthy, domineering father who had been molding him to follow in his footsteps, Kit hears a story that utterly shattered his idea of what his father was like. After ensuring his sister's safety, Kit takes off, not knowing where he's going or who he really is anymore. He wanders by chance into Belle Haven, where he settles down in a trailer.

Over time, he and Rachel become close friends, and Kit feels comfortable enough to share his story with her. Like Rachel, he becomes deeply attached to Belle Haven and its inhabitants.

Unlike Rachel, Kit comes to realize it's more important to preserve life than to cling to a home. And he's also learned from his own family experience that it is always better to "face things squarely" than "look the other way and hope for the best."

What happens when two people who love each other reach an impasse? Will Kit manage to persuade Rachel to move? Or will her stubbornness end up destroying her own life and the lives of those she claims to love?

Wolk writes clean, well-crafted prose, and she paints an appealing picture of life in a small, close-knit community. But her novel is beset by a number of flaws. It raises some questions and issues that are never adequately explained. We are told a lot about Kit's background, but are given no clue as to why his father behaved so abominably.

Although we are made to understand Rachel's attachment to Belle Haven, after a while, her pig-headedness becomes downright infuriating. Even after an eruption incinerates Kit's trailer and his dog, Rachel is unwilling to leave. The author provides all sorts of "psychological" reasons for this: Rachel feels guilty about abandoning her parents' home. Rachel was too docile as a girl, so now she's gone to the opposite extreme of digging her heels in.

While such rationales might well explain why a bright young woman refused to leave her hometown for the risks of life in the big city, a bright young woman who refuses to move when fires have nearly swallowed up her boyfriend is another case entirely. Indeed, although Rachel is supposed to be a decent, good person, the depth of her self-involvement puts the most spoiled, narcissistic Hollywood starlet to shame.

Despite these drawbacks, which certainly diminish one's sympathy for the heroine, Wolk has created a memorable portrait of a town, in which she reminds us of how difficult it can sometimes be to face unpleasant realities and how the virtues of home are not confined to any particular spot of earth.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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