Magic realism is most convincing when it places ordinary characters in extraordinary situations.
That’s exactly what South Dakota State University associate professor Steven Wingate does in his novel “Of Fathers and Fire.”
Tommy Sandor, disenchanted teenage son of a single mother, Connie, lives in 1980 Suborney, Colo., at the height of the Iran hostage crisis. Tommy is tired of the right-wing rhetoric stemming from the hostage crisis, but at the same time has a burning thirst within him for something more – a thirst that’s quenched when the religious sect led by his biological father, Richard Thorpe, comes to Suborney.
Tommy is at first unaware that Richard Thorpe is his father, but instead believes his mother’s story that his father was a New York sax player and drug addict named Drake, whom Tommy emulates, even to the point of constantly playing a saxophone he found in the trunk of wrecked car in the junkyard where he works.
As Thorpe struggles to find a way to tell Tommy that he’s his father, Connie still lives the lie she told Tommy about Drake. As Tommy gradually comes to know the truth about Thorpe who set the fire to his grandfather Gregory Holmquist’s television store, killing Holmquist, he also learns that his mother and grandmother changed their names and fled from Thorpe.
Tommy also learns how Thorpe, and his religious sect The Sons and Daughters of Jesus and Mary, stalked Connie Sandor, formerly Jeanette Holmquist, from Nebraska to Bird City, Kan., and finally to Suborney.
Like his father who can make rain, Tommy has a special power – the ability to make creeks and rivers rise and fall. Thorpe tells Tommy that, while he has a power, he has not yet learned to master it. “You were like a 5-year-old driving a plane.”
Connie, too, has her own power, but a destructive one – the power to make fire. In time, the powers of the three family members result in a tragedy that none of them can prevent.
Wingate’s novel is convincing, yet raises more questions than answers. Did Thorpe actually cause the fire with his own powers, or could Jeanette, or Connie, have had a hand in starting the fire that claimed her father? Where do Connie, Thorpe and Tommy go at the end of the novel? Does Connie ever find the religious redemption her son so fervently seeks for her?
The book demands a sequel.