After the Fire by Will Hill
Usborne Publishing Ltd., 2017
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fiction
“The things I’ve seen are burned into me, like scars that refuse to fade”.
I picked up After the Fire without reading the blurb or having prior knowledge of its subject. Coming to the book raw and without preconceptions I was quickly immersed in an intense atmosphere of fear, suspicion and confusion. The disjointed memories of survivor Moonbeam are filled with gunshots and burning fire. It is not clear how her family of Brothers and Sisters – the Lord’s Legion community – reached this devastating and tragic crisis.
In the aftermath of the destruction of the Legion’s compound, Moonbeam is recovering in a Secure Unit in Odessa, Texas. The teenager is unable to speak about the disaster where many people died. She picks up a paintbrush and creates scenes of a small house by the sea. Perhaps she is visualising an early memory of her life before living in the community.
Process of recovery
Moonbeam’s parents joined the Lord’s Legion when she was very young. Her experiences in its compound have left her in a state of severe distress and unable to trust outsiders and the authorities. Throughout the novel Moonbeam begins to unpick the truth about her relationship with her mother, her friend Nate and other members of the community. Other children and young people who survived the fire are also in the care of the Secure Unit. Group sessions allow Moonbeam to explore her complicated relationships with them. She feels protective towards the children, especially Honey, a younger girl who shows great resilience. Moonbeam is wary of older teenager Luke, who is unable to break from the strong hold that the cult had on him.
Moonbeam knows a great deal about how the community and its charismatic and controlling leader, Father John, advanced towards a dangerous end. But in the fire’s aftermath, her judgement is clouded through trauma and she is silenced by the preacher’s voice. The demanding screaming of Father John continues to fill her mind.
Through a process of adjustment and recovery in sessions with her therapist, Doctor Hernandez, Moonbeam begins to put together pieces of the Legion’s history from her scattered memories. Agent Carlyle who is investigating the events joins the sessions. He asks questions which can make Moonbeam uncomfortable and challenges her further.
Reaching breaking point Moonbeam has to choose whether to be honest to the two men who listen to her. Most crucially can she be honest with herself about her role in events?
The narrative of the cult’s journey into increased isolation, abusive rules and practices are gripping enough. But what really makes this novel so special and engaging is the way that Moonbeam tells the story through her therapy. The survivor has to build up trust of her therapist and the process she is going through. Moonbeam also has to rebuild her sense of self and trust in herself as she goes through guilt and denial.
Telling the narrative in a non-linear way, as Moonbeam explores different timeframes of her story, works really well. The reader goes through the emotional journey with Moonbeam, and feels close to her. I felt immersed in Moonbeam’s process, even sharing her initial distrust of her therapist.
Young adults who identify with the strong teenage protagonist will find this intense book a great read. It is a story of trauma, survival and resilience that adults will find thought-provoking and gripping too.
There is a fascinating afterword by the author Will Hill, revealing how inspiration for the novel came to him. Hill is clear that After the Fire is a fiction. However his research into the Waco siege of 1993, and the recovery of the children who survived it, inspired his work. For study and teaching in schools, the book also has a useful section of Discussion Questions.
Readers should be aware that the book contains violence and a graphic description of a disturbing suicide. The publisher recommends it for young adults aged 14 plus and it is not suitable for younger children.