Fire lookout narratives can almost be considered a niche unto themselves in literature. There’s something deeply compelling about the concept of being paid to disappear into the bush for several months each summer to keep a watch for “smokes,” with the world of office stress, family life and daily cares vanishing in the rearview mirror. But it’s also too easy to romanticize the world of the lookout tower—as Jack Kerouac did in his famed novel Dharma Bums—as the home of spiritual young men finding themselves in isolation from the capitalist grind. Is the fire tower narrative really that gender specific? What’s the place of women in this world, and is it truly so easy to leave life behind and just disappear into the forest?
Enter Mary Theresa Kelly’s On Mockingbird Hill, a memoir that delves into her many years of involvement with the fire lookout scene in Alberta. The book centres on the relationship between young Mary and Daniel, the quirky, artistic potter and fire lookout with whom she falls in love. In the economically fraught years of the 1980s, these and other characters in the memoir long for a more spiritually resonant life. Through the Lookout Supper Club, the men who take to the fire lookouts through the long summers and their wives, girlfriends and children, build a close-knit community of people seeking a more meaningful connection to the land.
On Mockingbird Hill is a book about finding oneself, but it’s also about the ways in which that search differs for women and men. The lookout scene of the ’80s is one predominantly of men, with wives and girlfriends—“grass widows” as Kelly calls them—coming and going from remote fire towers through the long Alberta summers. Unsure of what she wants to do with her life, frustrated by the lack of meaningful work in her home city of Calgary, young Mary finds herself inducted into the world of the fire lookouts almost by accident, and struggles to develop her sense of agency in a male-dominated world: “I felt trapped, and blamed my external circumstances; but I was also trapped inside the confines of my own choices. I had more opportunity than 90 per cent of women around the world, but I was unable to galvanize that advantage, mysteriously seduced and captivated by attractive, troubled men.”
Memoir is a tricky genre, where the need to provide the reader with specific background information to better understand the story can hamper the telling. On Mockingbird Hill does suffer these intrusions, but overall the powerful narrative keeps the reader engaged. Yes, Kelly acknowledges, the mythos of the fire lookout in self-imposed exile is compelling, but even when we retreat from the world, we bring our emotional baggage with us.
—Jenna Butler teaches creative writing at Red Deer College.