Saturday, March 28, 2015

Burning and Building Bridges

Letters from the Fire by Alma Alexandra Hromic and R. A. Deckert


During the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, also known as "Operation Allied Force," two people "meet" on an internet newsgroup – one is a woman in Yugoslavia, watching the bombing of her homeland by NATO forces. The other is a man in the USA – watching the news from afar. As they argue the different sides of what they see and what they believe is right, they discover a connection that is stronger than their disagreements, and surpasses the physical distance between them.

First, this novel is almost entirely the fictionalized postings to an internet newsgroup and email correspondence, making it probably the first electronic epistolary novel ever written. While this book came out in 1999, just after the fighting ended, it actually developed in real life, much as it plays out in the book – via the internet. What drew me to this book was that I actually watched most of this story unfold before my own eyes, on the same newsgroup (misc.writing), which the authors were actually frequenting. Then someone on the group suggested that they put their real frustrations into a fictional story and that is how, "Letters from the Fire" came to be. This also cemented their real-life personal relationship, leading Alma to move to the USA from New Zealand and marry Deck.

While in real life, Deck and Alma took much the same side politically regarding the NATO operation, in order to bring more spice to the book, they decided to pit the fictional Dave against the fictional Sasha, politically. Although Alma wasn't living in Novi Sad at the time of the bombings, it made more sense to put Sasha right on the front lines. However, what this book concentrates on besides the bombings, are the people who communicate almost half way across the globe, and how such a relationship can grow despite never meeting face-to-face. The story begins with Sasha's postings about her horror at the destruction of a bridge in Belgrade, which leads to a new, more emotional bridge between Sasha and Dave.

With such a personal story that almost parallels the real-life one, one might worry if the authors could keep from being overly involved, and fall into the trap of this becoming more of a love story than a story about two people who connect on different levels during a difficult time. Fortunately, these two were (and are) true professionals, and kept the romantic part of the story as a byproduct of the action, rather than the central theme. In this way, their relationship becomes even more poignant, since it seems something that they both resist, but equally find irresistible.

Since Deck wrote the entries from Dave and Alma wrote the entries from Sasha, there is no problem with the readers identifying two very distinctive voices here, and very quickly, you'll be skipping over the "headings" of the entries, which state clearly, who is writing what. Since the authors based these characters on themselves, they quickly become among the most vivid people you've ever read. This makes reader empathy for these characters almost mandatory, and I dare you not to feel the tugs at your heartstrings as you read this novel. Again, this isn't a mushy romantic novel, and is as far from "Chick-Lit" as can be imagined, but the emotions that this story evokes are undeniable.

It may be that I'm somewhat attached to this book because I "know" Deck and Alma from the newsgroup. In all honesty, I don't think that this is the case. If nothing else I've said recommends it, readers should know that this novel was a breakthrough on writing about the internet age. The fact that the bombings are long over, doesn't mean that we haven't seen or can't imagine something similar in other wars across the world. The internet has made this globe a much smaller place than ever, and this book poignantly shows just how close we can become, despite the distances between us. I couldn't give it less than a full five stars and highly recommend it. 

"Letters from the Fire" by Alma Alexander Hromic and R.A. Deckert is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Better World Books and Alibris. This is a version of my review which appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network. I would like to thank the authors for sending me a (signed) copy of this book as a gift, and never requested a review in return.

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