Who by Fire by Fred Stenson

Fiction pick by Jean-Louis


(Doubleday Canada, 2014)

Fred Stenson is an Alberta writer who has written widely in a range of places and has published important books in the non-fiction and fiction genres. He likes to tackle the big themes of our western experience. In The Trade he gave us an account of the end of the fur trade era centered in northern Alberta, in his novel Lightning he turned to the topic of the first big cattle herds that made their way up from the American mid-west into Alberta and British Columbia,  and in The Great Karoo the novel told us about a group of young western Canadians who went off to fight in the Boer War of South Africa. To say that Stenson likes a big canvas is no understatement.

In Who by Fire, Stenson is once again firmly in Alberta territory and a story that fits very close to his own experience. This is a novel that traces the development of the first sour gas wells in southern Alberta. In the afterword, Stenson tells us that much of this novel was inspired by the experiences of his parents, family, and by the men and women who pioneered the oil and gas sector. Set in alternating time frames, the novel tells the story of the Ryder family–Tom and his wife Ella, their daughters Jeannie, Donna, and young Billy as they move from the early 1960s to the current time. At the outset of the novel the young family are going about their lives on a typical farm when a sour gas plant comes and literally sets up on their door step. This new neighbor soon sets the family, the community, and history of the land on a completely new trajectory. The current time frame shows Bill, now an engineer, working in Fort McMurray, still wrestling the technology in the gas and oil plants.

Stenson, in all of his novels, loves to give you an education tied up with a rollicking good story. In Who by Fire you will learn about the workings of a sour gas plant and about the effects–negative and positive–that these types of plants had on people. The story of oil and gas is one that continues to make its mark on Alberta to this day. Stenson’s novel jumps right in and places real characters at the heart of this compelling story. If you have not read his novels before, you are in for a treat as he takes you through the great arcs of our Canadian western experience!

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