The Fire-Raiser, by Maurice Gee, was originally published in New Zealand in 1986, and has just been reissued in paperback in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin. It's a suspense story, set during World War I in a small town in New Zealand. A "fire-raiser" has been burning down empty buildings. As the story begins, the arsonist is looking to graduate to burning buildings containing living creatures. Four local children figure out who the criminal is, but have trouble convincing the authorities, and find themselves in danger. A caring teacher, Mr. "Clippy" Hedges, tries to help the kids, especially one boy who is homeless. Clippy is a bit distracted, however, because the woman he loves, a German expatriate who teaches piano, is in danger, too. Anti-German fever runs high in the town, stoked by a bombastic politician, and Frau Stauffel becomes a convenient target.
I had some trouble getting into this book at first, but soon became gripped by the story, especially by the plight of Frau Stauffel. She had so little recourse - a German woman, living in New Zealand, with no family to care for her, as xenophobia ran amok. (Post 9-11 treatment of Muslims shows the timelessness of this storyline.) Fortunately the piano teacher had Mr. Hedges, and the four plucky children, to protect her.
I enjoyed the dynamics of the relationships between the four children, two working class siblings (the baker's children), the pampered but plucky daughter of the mayor, and the Huck Finn-like Phil, eking out a parentless existence. And I agree with the Kirkus Review quoted on the back cover that it "brings an entire community vividly and believably to life". We see the town politics and class struggles, but also the people working together to fight the arsonist's fires and to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. The children are in a patriotic play together, forced into it by a bossy teacher of the breed that keeps small towns running. Everyone in town attends, even the arsonist.
My only quibble with the book is that I found that the omniscient narration (from which the reader could also see the arsonist's perspective), kept the children a bit at a distance. At times this felt like a novel written for adults that happened to feature some children, rather than a book written for children. But overall it's a well-written story, and a window into early World War I New Zealand. The madness of the arsonist, the caring by Mr. Hedges for his students and Frau Stauffel, the rivalry of the children, and the violent behavior of the town's young men, are all, for better or worse, timeless. Recommended for middle grade fans of historical fiction and atmospheric mysteries (such as A Drowned Maiden's Hair or the Enola Holmes mysteries), and for adult readers of British mysteries.
Book: The Fire-Raiser
Author: Maurice Gee
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (for new paperback re-issue, originally published in New Zealand by Penguin)
Publication Date: June 2007 for reissue edition, 1986 for original text
Age Range: 10 and up
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.