In a brief moment, life as we know it can disappear. Hollye Dexter and her family experience such a moment on November 18, 1994, when they awaken on a record-breaking cold night in Southern California to find their house engulfed in flames. Dexter and her husband are trapped on the second floor with her four-year-old son as the fire whooshes into the rooms. Their only hope of escape is a thirty-foot drop out the window onto concrete below.
In her memoir, Fire Season: My Journey from Ruin to Redemption, Dexter narrates a gripping account of the fire and its aftermath... "The smell of that fire is something I will never forget. It is not the warm, cozy smell of a campfire, but the putrid stench of synthetic carpeting and drywall plaster and household appliances melting, the toxic cloud of our life disintegrating." Not only does her family lose all their personal possessions, their two dogs, two cats, and a bunny, they also lose their source of income from their home-based business. Fortunately, her six-year-old daughter was with her father that night. Nothing was insured.
The tasks that follow are overwhelming—replacing birth certificates, social security cards, drivers' licenses, credit cards, and the multitude of documents that are part of all of our lives. The family moves in with Dexter's mother and her husband. Friends donate clothing and household goods. Their musician friends hold a benefit concert. The local TV station features their story, which brings other material assistance. As difficult as the early days after the fire are, a Red Cross representative assigned to them warns of hard times ahead: "You are surrounded by people showing up to support you. Donations are coming in. You're getting phone calls every day. But soon, those things will taper off, and you'll be left picking up the pieces. That's the hard part, and that's when a lot of this loss will start to hit you."
Despite their optimism that life can only get better, the family suffers one blow after another. They must weather the loss of Dexter's kids clothing business when her partner withdraws the money needed to keep it going. A slowdown in the music business affects her guitar player husband's ability to get gigs. Finally, they are forced to declare bankruptcy. A sudden, inexplicable rift occurs with the couple who were their closest friends. The losses from the fire also uncover hidden fault lines in family history and relationships. Dexter unravels and must confront the question of who she really is now that she has lost everything. And so begins her path toward "redemption."
Dexter weaves her story of the fire and her struggles to rebuild a life with her history in a seamless tapestry. I was riveted by her no-holds-barred account of what happens when the life one has built is destroyed without warning, and the incredible strength needed to rise from the ashes. Reading Dexter's story will challenge readers to think about who they would be if everything in their own lives were destroyed.
Hollye Dexter is the author of two memoirs and co-editor of Dancing at the Shame Prom (Seal Press), praised by best-selling author Gloria Feldt (former CEO of Planned Parenthood) as "a brilliant book that just might change your life." Her essays and articles about women's issues, activism, and politics have been widely published in anthologies, as well as in Maria Shriver's Architects of Change, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, and more. She teaches writing workshops internationally and for at-risk youth in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and a houseful of kids and pets. Learn more about Dexter on her blog.
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