Tinderbox : A Book Review

On Aug. 5, 1949, a forest fire began in Mann Gulch, Mont. A group of "smokejumpers" (forest fire fighters who jumped from planes) were dispatched to the area. Intense heat and heavy winds ignited an inferno in which 13 died and only one smokejumper survived: Wag Dodge. Counterintuitively, unlike the others who died trying to outrun the blaze, Dodge started an "escape fire" around himself, which burned the tinder around him, the fire's fuel, creating the space in which he was spared incineration and lived to tell the tale.

In Peru in the 1890s, a rubber baron, Carlos Fizcarrald, portaged a steamship atop mountain terrain from one river to another hoping to make a fortune transporting its then precious cargo. The feat was memorialized, if not exaggerated, by the great filmmaker Werner Herzog in his 1982 epic, Fitzcarraldo, in which an actual steamer was dragged across land in the most inhospitable of environments.

These two stories, actually metaphors, are woven into and illustrative of the imagery of Lisa Gornick's powerful novel. Fire, folly, and fortitude all play their part as a family is torn asunder, and it turns out they needed to be.

Myra Mendelson, Ph.D., leads a very well run life as a divorced mother of two adult children living on the upper west side of Manhattan, where she conducts her private practice of psychotherapy out of the brownstone she occupies. Everything is under control. But then she opens her home to her son who is lost in his too private and unsuccessful screenwriting career, his Moroccan Jewish doctor wife, and their 6-year-old son who are all coming to New York for the wife to take additional medical training. This turn of events sweeps Myra's daughter, professionally successful but personally damaged, thoroughly back into family life. But the spark that ignites the family is Eva, a Peruvian young woman, a nanny, whom Myra hires to help with her newly-amassed household.

This is a family tale, one of loveless experiences, betrayals, divorce, traumas and deep dysfunction. Despite its sorrows, so brilliantly depicted in this novel, the story is, sadly, all too common. But were it not for the friction in this family, this "tinderbox" would not be set ablaze in order for us to see beneath a veil that is overgrown with convention and shrouded in secrecy.

Lisa Gornick is both a writer and a psychoanalyst. Her gifts for seeing beyond the surface, for appreciating and depicting the consequences of unrealized love and psychic pain, for observing with unblinking honesty the dynamics of family life and human foibles, come together in this novel, which starts off like a brush fire and then engulfs and burns with fury.

Myra's ex-husband and son do not speak well for us men. But women, including her daughter, daughter-in-law and relatives, are not far behind in the dog house. I was concerned that we all would be tarred, even if deservedly so, until I realized that a knot must be made tight for it to be broken, a thicket must be made dense to bore through, and that only when pain becomes unbearable can any of us exit from everyday misery.

"The night is darkest just before the dawn." So it is with a person, a family, before they find the light. When fire inevitably comes, it destroys -- but it also burns away encrusted, twisted and dead wood. Fire furnishes the nutrients for new growth, for the vitality needed to make for new life, new love, and hope. That is the blessing that Lisa Gornick so wonderfully shows us in Tinderbox.

Dr. Sederer's new book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, published by WW Norton, is now available, as is his even newer book (with Jay Neugeboren and Michael Friedman), The Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas.

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.