Things You Save in a Fire, by Katherine Center

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Well, this much is clear: I wouldn’t bother to save this novel in a fire. This book is a whole new kind of bad. It actually made me annoyed and, at times, angry.

Sexualised violence, PTSD, cancer, sexism, general violence, stalking, abandonment, arson, insta-love, and forgiveness (for all of the afore-mentioned) – all in this one novel and badly done to boot.

Before anything else – even being human – Cassie Hanwell is an extremely successful firefighter. No doubt in large part due to the fact that this profession in the USA is dominated by men. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in 2020 only 9% of the firefighters were female.

I couldn’t easily find my native Germany’s statistics but in the UK, the percentage of female firefighters is about 7%. So, I’m going to assume it’s the same problem in the USA and in Europe.

Thus, Cassie – like many women – has always had (and still has) to work harder and longer than her male colleagues. She has also experienced sexualised violence at the age of 16.

Shockingly and shamefully, according to the US National Sexual Violence Resource Center, she has that in common with approximately one in five women in the United States has experienced completed or attempted rape during their lifetime. Additionally, 81% of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.

According to a report by the United Nations, globally, approximately one in three women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner.

Ten years later at an award ceremony in her honour, to everyone’s surprise, when confronted with her attacker, 26-year-old Cassie thoroughly beats him up on stage. She’s given the choice to apologise or be fired (let’s not go into the question of whether any of that is realistic…) but comes up with a way out: Since her mother needs help with an eye issue, she’s going to move to her into another state and take a job there – at an all-male fire station the male captain of which loudly complains about women in his profession…

Prepared by her current female captain (“Don’t ever be a girl! Be a robot instead!”), she moves and is confronted by a world I naïvely had hoped went extinct with the ‘90s.

»l looked the sheet over. “So, to succeed in my new job, I basically need to be an asexual, androgynous, human robot that’s dead to all physical and emotional sensation.”
She sat back in her chair and nodded, like, Yep. Simple.
I nodded.
“Just be a machine,” she said. “A machine that eats fire.”

I will now go into spoilerish detail, so on platforms that support it, I’m going to use spoiler tags. On all others; beyond here be dragons!


Cassie first moves in with her estranged mother, Diana, who walked out on her and Cassie’s father on Cassie’s 16th birthday, which also happened to be the date when she was raped…

»I looked up to see Josie smiling at me. Then she reached out and tucked a wisp of hair behind my ear. “She believed you’d be okay,” she said again. “And she was right.”«

Diana, it turns out, is an emotional manipulator who knows no boundaries and has no clue what happened to her daughter. Her “eye issue” also turns out to be a malignant, aggressive brain tumour which Diana neglects to mention till she cannot hide it any longer.

Pretty much like her father, who never even tried to get Cassie help but resorted to teaching her basketball… In the present, he’s a full-blown asshole when he “asks” her to help her mother:

»“How could you say no to her?” he demanded. “She needs you.”

“Can we talk about this later?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter when we talk about it,” my dad said, rolling out his most authoritative voice. “You’re going.”

“I already said no.”

“Change your mind.”

“I’m not going to change my mind,” I said, like he was completely nuts.

“She’s your mother, and she needs you, and you’re going.”

“You’re telling me to leave my job, my apartment, my life—everything?”“You’re young. You’ll make it work.”«

But since mommy is going to teach Cassie forgiveness, daddy will be immediately forgiven for this and everything else.

Let’s stay with forgiveness, a central topic of this novel, for a moment: Yes, forgiveness can make sense. Most of all when we forgive ourselves. Or minor infractions by others. Mommy Diana, though, is trying to teach her adult daughter to forgive her rapist, a physically and emotionally violent criminal and everyone else – all in the name of forgiveness and for forgiveness’ sake. 

Even if you feel this is valid and fine: Said violent criminal who even confesses, gets away with a slap on the wrist. The same guy who stalked, threatened and even became physically violent against Cassie in fact gets back into her good graces:

»In acknowledgment of his personal growth, I got him a T-shirt that says THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE.«

Yea, right.

Nothing is going to deter him or anyone else around to just do more of the same. While one’s first duty is, undisputedly, to oneself, one has to keep the consequences of one’s actions in mind. If one still stands by said action afterwards, that’s fine. But in this novel there’s no consideration for what might happen later.

Let’s move on: Having just arrived on duty, Cassie and a rookie, her love interest Owen, are being “initiated” by a ritual of duct-taping both of them half-naked to a post at night:

»“Are you guys here to haze me?” I asked, lowering my arms.

Tiny gave a little shrug. “We’re supposed to duct-tape you to the basketball pole.”

I nodded and relaxed out of my crouch. Fair enough. “Okay, then.”

Tiny didn’t step forward, so I waved him toward me.

“Let’s get it over with,” I said.


Next thing I knew, they had pressed us together, standing back to back against the basketball pole, running a roll of duct tape around us to keep us there. It was late summer and starting to get chilly.«

Now, some of you might feel that this isn’t so bad. Let’s see, though: The way this plays out makes it pretty clear they suffer through it but at no point consent to this intentionally degrading and humiliating procedure. In fact, they’re physically restrained.

While it does not involve direct, immediate physical harm, it does involve subjecting individuals to discomfort and potential embarrassment. It’s just plain disgusting and unworthy behaviour for any human being.

But, hey, at least – and here we come to the issue of instant love which is about as attractive as instant coffee – both Cassie and Owen immediately fall in love with each other. Within a year, they will be engaged and about a year later married. The epilogue kindly informs us of the further adventures; two kids, lots of forgiveness and a happily-ever-after.

This is, of course, helped by the fact that Cassie considers every single firefighter a hero and expects them always to be “the good ones”: Hyperbolising every firefighter into a hero is doing them a disservice as it creates unrealistic expectations and puts undue pressure on them. While firefighters are undoubtedly brave and selfless individuals who put their lives on the line to save others, they are also human beings who experience fear, stress, and trauma like everyone else. By portraying them as infallible heroes, we risk overlooking the mental and emotional toll that their job can take on them. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame when they are unable to live up to these unrealistic expectations.

»Somebody who’s supposed to be a hero.”«

By acknowledging their humanity and vulnerability, we can create a more supportive environment that encourages them to seek help when they need it instead of trying to compartmentalise or other forms of self-abuse. This very novel shows us an example of that.

»“Firefighters are supposed to be the good guys.”«

This novel is not a romance but a misguided attempt at hero worship.


Meanwhile, Owen asks Cassie to join him at a family celebration during which he magically “heals” all her issues with a kiss. Yes, I kid you not. PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder)? Just kiss it well!

Of course, Owen has lots of issues himself: As a child he played a part in causing a huge fire which cost his paternal uncle’s life. Plagued by guilt, Owen has never told anybody and became a fireman himself because daddy is “Big Robby”, a hotshot firefighter himself. Even though he, Owen, always wanted to become a cook! (Which, of course, in a reverse-Grisu move, he’s going to become!)

Due to their severe cases of mutual instant love, they don’t have to talk or interact much either. There’s no banter in this novel. There’s no chance for chemistry to develop. They fall in love, jump into bed together (fade to black) and even before Owen gets discharged from the hospital after a life-threatening injury (Cassie of course saved his life!), he proposes to Cassie… (Using a “ring” made from the still-sticky foil of a yoghurt.)

Worst of all, though: None of the above is reflected upon in the novel – the extreme sexism, bizarre initiation rituals, toxic masculinity – it’s all just accepted as preordained. It’s just like people saying “boys will be boys” after witnessing a boy harassing a girl.

No, it’s not that simple: We’re not born as assholes but we become assholes. And whoever spouts irresponsible crap like the above is an immediate part of the problem.


At least, though, it all magically works out for Cassie…

»I even read a whole book on the psychology of post-traumatic growth, and how, in the wake of the terrible, traumatic, unfair, cruel, gaping wounds that life inflicts on us, we can become wiser and stronger than we were before.
Am I wiser and stronger now?
Without question. Even in the wake of it all.

… and she has even read a whole psychology book (gasp!) and is now a lifelong expert!

One annoyed and angry star out of five.

Ceterum censeo Putin esse delendam

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