A Writer's Journey

July 23, 2012

Book Analysis: “Fire Along the Sky” by Sara Donati

Filed under: journey,writing — mackenziew @ 12:00 am
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Note: This is not a review. This is an analysis where I see what I, as a writer, felt worked and didn’t work in the story.

“Fire Along the Sky” is the fourth book in Sara Donati’s “Into the Wilderness” series, following the exploits of the Bonner family on the edge of the New York wilderness in the early years of the United States. This entry takes place ten years or so after “Lake in the Clouds.” Hannah returns, a shadow of herself and carrying secrets that weigh her down. She needs to find healing to start living again. Her twin siblings, Lily and Daniel, are adults and yearning to fly free of Paradise much to Elizabeth’s dismay. The War of 1812 answers Daniel’s prayers while dashing Lily’s dreams. He and Blue Jay go off to fight while she can no longer go overseas to study art. Luke, her half-brother, takes her to Montreal while leaving his beloved, their distant cousin Jennet, at Paradise. Life continues on in the small village while in Canada, Lily finds herself drawn to Luke’s business partner, Simon Ballentyne. It is an interesting year for the Bonner family.

From here on out, there will be SPOILERS!

So, let’s start with what worked.

This time, Donati made the two stories mesh better. If you remember, one of my complaints about “Lake in the Cloud” was that the multiple plotlines made it read like three books in one. In “Fire in the Sky,” Donati alternated chapters—one may follow Lily and Simon in Montreal, the next may return to Paradise. It’s more like “Dawn on a Distant Shore” in that respect.

Hannah’s story is intriguing. Donati leaves it a mystery for just the right amount of time. It builds up suspense, but it doesn’t allow the reader to forget in the main bustle of the story. Once Hannah tells her tale, she begins to return to the character we’ve come to know over the past three books. I don’t miss Strikes-the-Sky and do think Hannah’s better off without him. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like him and this was Donati’s way of erasing it while creating a compelling story for Hannah.

While I didn’t—and still clearly don’t—like the romance in “Lake in the Clouds,” I do like the ones in “Fire Along the Sky.” Lily’s romance with Simon felt more natural. We watched it progress rather than had all the other characters say “Oh, Hannah is in love with Strikes-the-Sky.” And then have Hannah just give in. This isn’t Lily giving in—this is her growing to realize what her feelings are. There is also a fire to Jennet and Luke’s romance but we are coming in the middle of it. But more on that later.

The romances work and I think that’s a problem. Because they work, Donati doesn’t stray from her formula. Feisty and outspoken girl meets headstrong yet silent man. They banter, where he enjoys riling her up. But he understands her, better than she may understand herself. He knows they are in love before her (Jennet and Luke the exception) and the main obstacle is her stubbornness. Once they overcome that, they can overcome any challenge.

I liked it in “Into the Wilderness” between Elizabeth and Nathaniel. I didn’t like it in “Lake in the Clouds” between Hannah and Strikes-the-Sky. While I liked it in “Fire Along the Sky” between Lily and Simon, I’ve grown bored of it. Can’t we see something new? Please? Shy girl meets outspoken boy? Or vice versa? Just, not Elizabeth and Nathaniel clones anymore.

Unlike the other books, “Fire Along the Sky” had a clear set up for a sequel. It was done at the end of the Nut Island scenes and, I’ll admit, I was annoyed at first. I knew the story was coming to the end and it seemed like this new plot was coming. But once I saw what Donati was doing, I approved. Especially as it was intriguing—and promised more Luke and Jennet. I do hope we learn more about them in “Queen of Swords.”

Now onto what I felt didn’t work.

Fortunately, there is little I didn’t think worked. But the novel is not perfect. While Jemima Southern Kuick was annoying, she was a good villain. She was someone who believed she deserved better than what she had. But that they should be handed to her and that she shouldn’t have to earn them the honest way. All her ways to a better life are underhanded and leave her more miserable than before. She also has this intense hatred for Hannah that’s never really explained, but could be for several reasons. The freedom Hannah had, the support, the intelligence, the chances, etc.

But this was Jemima’s coup d’état. She married a lonely but kind-hearted widower and ruined his life. Abandoned her daughter, Martha, to the care of Curiosity and the Bonners—the people she hated. Sold her husband’s lands and fled the town. And she sold them to a minister from Maine, who comes to town to preach. The town doesn’t think he’ll last as they haven’t had a minister who lasted since Kitty’s father died.

In this newcomer, Donati creates another villain. No, villain is not the right word. She has created an antagonist. For he comes to town and clashes with the townspeople who think he should relinquish his claim to Nicholas’ lands. After all, the sale was done under fraudulent premises. But for his part, it was legitimate and he refuses. Nicholas doesn’t contest it and leaves Paradise. So people are against him from the start. And then they don’t take kindly to having a preacher poking his nose in other people’s business.

So is that what makes him an antagonist? Well, he clashes with our protagonists. And he’s supposed to clash with us. Because as I’ve said before, Elizabeth comes off as a bit too modern. This is a problem I find inherent to historical romance heroines in today’s books. I’ll go more into that later. His use of religion to promote his own prejudices is supposed to resonate with us as there are still people who use it.

What’s my problem then? It’s two-fold, really. One, I liked in the beginning where Elizabeth was bested. Yes, it was Nathaniel doing the besting, but she was at least humbled. In this case, it’s just “someone whose thinking is wrong and Elizabeth is right.” And I think he could’ve been someone who went toe-to-toe with Elizabeth. But he was run out of town too quickly.

The second part has to do with Lily. I’m not one to root for slut shaming, which was essentially what the reverend was doing. He was talking about people who had sex outside of marriage and guess who was doing that? And guess who was mad that the minister dare call out their daughter? And this part I was not onboard with. I didn’t like the slut shaming, but I wasn’t about to think “Yeah, leave Lily alone!”

Look, I know people have sex. And it’s not recent; people have been doing this for millennia. But for a long time, sex outside of marriage was considered taboo. “Fire Along the Clouds” is set in that time. Yes, Paradise is a small town and most people just smile knowingly at Lily and Simon. But it’s not like they were only doing it in either their cabin or the meetinghouse. Donati writes that they have a spot in the woods near the town that they often stop to have sex before going to dinner. So, they’re being pretty obvious about it. When the reverend is preaching against Lily, Nathaniel goes straight to threaten him along with Simon. Never does he or Elizabeth or Curiosity suggest that the two practice discretion. Tell them to stop doing it in public. To stop giving the reverend ammunition.

Is it out of character for Nathaniel? No, not really. For Elizabeth? Yes, but it’s understandable. She already dislikes the reverend so she’s bound to think the worst of him. And Curiosity? It is out of character for her. Is that what bothers me? No, it isn’t. It’s the fact that we were clearly supposed to be on the Bonners’ side. We’re supposed to be like “Yeah, Lily and Simon should be able to have sex whenever they want.”

But I cannot support that. I cannot support the “holier-than-thou” attitude BOTH parties had. And not when it is clear we’re not supposed to think one party (the Bonners) has it. This is a note to Ms. Donati: Yes, sex between two people who love each other is good and okay. But the same people showing restraint and waiting? Also good and okay.

A note to other writers: It’s okay to have your characters be driven by hormones and passion. But if they do something stupid because of it, don’t try to pretend it wasn’t. We make mistakes and so should the characters. And sometimes, the antagonists are allowed to make good points.

Well, now, onto “Queen of Swords.”



  1. Frankly, the very fact that people ignore their liaison troubles me. And small town doesn’t mean support – ironically, the smaller the community is, the more malicious gossip spreads. While I understand them not wanting to cooperate with newcomer, I’m surprised someone didn’t call them out before. Yeah, extramarital sex is okay now. But back then people wholeheartedly believed it’s not good.
    And if it happens that often, why on earth isn’t she pregnant yet?

    Comment by Amarth — July 23, 2012 @ 3:33 am | Reply

    • It’s odd. I’m not sure if Donati is portraying the town as more tight knit or more scared of Lily’s father, Nathaniel. Either way, I didn’t like it and it struck me more as Donati wanting us to root for her couple instead of realizing they are doing something wrong.

      And there was a pregnancy scare. She got her period late.

      Comment by mackenziew — July 23, 2012 @ 9:50 pm | Reply

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