Where the Fire Falls

by Andrea Barnett

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

Where the Fire Falls, set in Yosemite National Park in 1929, is about a woman whose art dealer has schooled her in dressing and acting like a stylish, successful artist. Actually, Olivia grew up plain "Liv" in poverty after her father was sent to prison. Her love of painting is true and honest, but her appearance as a sophisticated flapper with money to spare is not. She feels like a fraud. Immediately after being introduced to a wealthy Vanderbilt, she learns she's been offered a commission to illustrate a popular magazine's feature on Yosemite. This could be her big chance―if her father's crime had not been committed there. And in Yellowstone, a disgraced former minister now working as a Yosemite tour guide is thoroughly annoyed by the prospect of shepherding a flapper artist and the high society Vanderbilt couple through the park he loves, which they don't seem to care for.

Not a mystery, but a sweet (no sex) Christian-themed historical romance, the novel would be easier to get caught up in if the genre were clear from the outset. The nature of Liv's father's crime is left uncertain so long that the novel feels like it could turn into a murder mystery, but the focus is never on learning what happened: Liv does know what happened, even if the reader does not, and she's desperate to keep her connection to the event secret. The real story is how the two main characters resolve their inner conflicts and find their way to love, and it's too predictable to provide much suspense. The Yosemite setting is engaging, though, and plot twists involving Liv's struggle to keep her father's story under wraps, as well as a harassment situation, offer drama enough to hold a reader's attention.

Where the Fire Falls is the second in a series of "Vintage National Parks" novels, a fine idea that emphasizes the sense of divine presence people often feel in settings of natural grandeur. (2018; 344 pages, including an Author's Note on the history behind the novel and a Reader's Guide with questions for discussion or reflection)

More about Where the Fire Falls at Powell's Books or The Book Depository

Other novels set in Yosemite:

Seeing America by Nancy Crocker (2014), about a young man who, after graduating from high school in 1910, agrees to drive a blind friend across the country to Yosemite in his new Ford Model T, amid racial tensions stirred up by the Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries boxing match. More info at Powell's Books

High Country by Nevada Barr (2004), a contemporary mystery novel in which a park ranger working undercover as a waitress at Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel investigates the disappearance of four young park employees; #12 in the Anna Pigeon mystery series. More info

Zanita: A Tale of the Yo-Semite by Therese Yelverton (1872), a novel written after the author spent the summer of 1870 in Yosemite where she met the young John Muir; she incorporates herself and Muir as characters in the novel under the names "Mrs. Sylvia Brown" and "Kenmuir." Available to read free online at the Yosemite Online Library

Nonfiction about Yosemite:

The Yosemite by John Muir (1912). More info

Hiking Yosemite National Park: A Guide to 59 of the Park's Greatest Adventures by Suzanne Swedo (4th ed., 2016). More info

Historic Yosemite National Park: The Stories Behind One of America's Great Treasures by Tracy Salcedo (2016). More info


Yosemite National Park: History and Culture at the Yosemite National Park website

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