I’ve been in a book club for about 20 years. We’ve been as big as 15 people and as small as three members over the years. We come from all walks of life – single, married, divorced, widowed, kids, no kids, working, retired, you get the picture. But the one thing we have in common is a love of books.
Now that doesn’t mean we always love the book we’ve chosen. In fact, it is a rare occasion that we all like the same book.
But last night’s discussion was one of those rare occasions. We read Fernanda Santos’ book The Fire Line, the story about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the 19 firefighters who lost their lives in June 2013.
Fernanda was working for the New York Times, based here in Phoenix, at the time of the fire. Also, at that time, our agency was working with the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, who would become involved with the investigation. Therefore, Fernanda and our team got to know each other quite well.
A few years later, Fernanda was working on another story with a different HMA client, and she and I once again had the chance to work together.
A friendship developed and we stayed in touch via Facebook and saw each occasionally at events throughout the Valley.
Shortly after her book came out, Dan Barr, a local attorney posted on Facebook that he’d buy wine for the first book club to agree to buy her book. I said as long as she would come and talk about it, I was in. Books were purchased. A date was scheduled. And then, life took a turn.
Fernanda’s husband, local journalist Mike Saucier, passed away a few weeks before we had her scheduled to visit. Then the holidays. And I took some time off from the book club.
I returned to book club earlier this year and reached back out to Fernanda and she was still willing to come to talk to us. Dan was still willing to supply the wine.
And last night, we gathered on Linda’s back patio, a few non-book club friends were there, too, and Fernanda joined us to discuss the book.
For just over an hour she talked about meeting with the wives and girlfriends of the firefighters, some willing to share their stories, some not sure they trusted a journalist with the details of their personal lives. How she was compelled to know more about fighting fires, wind patterns and what motivated these Hotshots to put themselves in harms way for others. It is not a book about placing blame. That wasn’t the story she wanted to tell.
And then she shared the one thing she didn’t expect to have had happen when she wrote the book. Having something in common with the families she had written about. When Mike passed away, it was some of the firefighter widows that reached out to her. They understood what she was going through.
Fernanda has stepped away from the daily newspaper business and is the Southwest Borderlands Initiative professor of practice, teaching short-form and long-form narrative journalism at ASU’s Cronkite School.
She still writes. She writes about rebuilding her life and their daughter's life after her husband's death. And the one message she wanted us all to take away from her time with us…we are stronger than we think, even under the most difficult of circumstances.
Thank you, Fernanda, for sharing the firefighters’ story with the world and sharing your very personal story with us.