Fire Watch by Willis, Connie, 1983

Fire Watch by Willis, Connie

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Firewatch is a wonderful little time travel story about the latest Battle of Britain, and though most of the action takes place in London during WWII, the real impact of the story is felt in the main character's realization when she returned home to her own time that her love of history is as important to her instructors as it is to her.

Bartholomew was a student of history at Oxford in some undated future. He specialized in St. Paul and had spent his entire graduate education preparing for a leap through time to St. Paul's era to gather information for his thesis. Near the end of his tenure as a student his professors forced him to undergo a practicum, which required that Bartholomew travel by time machine to 1940's London and spend six weeks protecting St. Paul's Cathedral from German phosphorous bombs. This was considered an important topic of study in Bartholomew's day, because St. Paul's Cathedral had been nuked by a "pinpoint bomb" 70 years earlier, and it and swaths of London were gone by Bartholomew's time. The sense of loss and rage over the terrorist bombing of London permeated the psyche of most of the British, and was a major source of frustration and unresolved bloodlust. Bartholomew was prepared by his professors in haste for his assignment, and was only given a few courses of the standard memory drugs. Had the drugs been administered properly, over the course of many months, Bartholomew would have been armed with a complete memory of the history of the era. As it was his artificial memory was full of long gaps that only gave him a touch of deja vu in certain situations. In essence he was put back in time with no preparation for what was to come.

...I live here in the crypt with Nelson, who, Langby tells me, is pickled in alcohol inside his coffin. If we take a direct hit, will he burn like a torch or simply trickle out in a decaying stream onto the crypt floor, I wonder. Board is provided by a gas ring, over which are cooked wretched tea and indescribable kippers. To pay for all this luxury I am to stand on the roofs of St. Paul's and put out incendiaries.

Bartholomew felt put upon and out of place from the beginning as he had never studied that particular era of history, but he obeyed his instructions and went and spent six weeks sleeping very little and fighting a losing battle to protect a national treasure of Britain. While he was there he met and fell for a local woman who treated him kindly. She told him that she was sleeping in the Marble Arch tube station, and when she mentioned that he had a flash of insight and became alarmed. The drugs should have told him that the station that she was staying in was going to be bombed to oblivion by the Nazi planes in the following weeks, but at first he could not recall that fact. Bartholomew also thought that he uncovered a traitor who conspired with the Germans to destroy the Cathedral. His time in the cathedral was emotionally and physically exhausting and extremely frustrating. Keeping fires from starting on the roof of the cathedral during the nighttime raids was like trying to keep the ocean back from the surf with a broom. Bartholomew's failure to remember anything helpful caused more frustration and even some panic as he realized that he might not even be able to help stay his friends alive, and the knowledge that had he been prepared properly he would have been able to do virtually anything drove him mad.

When finally his time in the 1940's was up he returned home to his own time and was given an exam where he was asked mundane things such as how many bomb fragments per day he buried, how many hours he stayed awake and how many times the alarm bells went off. Disgusted by his professor's failure to understand the real human and social costs of that conflict he lashed out in anger and stormed out the classroom. Bartholomew was convinced when he left the exam that the only lesson he was expected to learn was that the people in the past already were history. They were not worth saving because history had already killed them. When he was told later that his professors were convinced by his reaction that he had finally learned to put the academic exercises of historical study behind him, and had embraced the true power of history, he came to respect them and himself again. However there was another lesson in all of this for Bartholomew. By going through the pointless exercise of trying to save the cathedral that to him was already wrecked and gone, Bartholomew worked through his rage over its destruction. On the one hand he learned that some things that are in the past are worth saving, while on the other hand some are not worth worrying about too much at all.

This is one of those really good stories that imparts a valuable message to the reader without doing so forcefully. Bartholomew made a very interesting character who was fighting a three way battle: He was trying to stop phosphorous fragments from burning the cathedral to the ground, he was watching the supposed traitor, Langby, and trying to prevent him from letting the cathedral burn down, and he was trying to "retrieve," or recall the memories implanted by the drugs so that he could figure out what was going on all around him. Of course, had he been able to retrieve properly he would have just relied on his omniscience to save the day and he would have learned nothing; his heart would not have been in it, and all his efforts would have amounted to simply going through the motions of preventing death and destruction. I have read several stories by Willis so far, and she never ceases to amaze me. This is no exception.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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