Picks and Pans Review: Riley's Fire

updated 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Lee Merrill Byrd

REVIEWED BY MICHELLE GREEN

CRITIC'S CHOICE

FICTION

Riley Martin, the hero of this powerful first novel, is a second grader much like any other: He spills Wheaties on the rug, loves the plastic pool behind his house and scorns Sarah, a 6-year-old who has a crush on him. He also plays with matches, which is how he starts a fire that leaves him with third-degree burns on 63 percent of his body. Flown to Galveston's Shriners Burns Institute, he spends months in a kind of purgatory where, along with his body, his soul undergoes a transformation. Though his mother, in particular, may never be able to accept his physical deformities, Riley comes to see why only his spiritual gifts matter.

Byrd, whose own sons were seriously burned in a playhouse fire at ages 4 and 7 in 1981, and who spent months by their bedsides at Shriners, injects a chilling authenticity into Riley's story. She captures the kindly jokiness of the "tub men" who immerse him in warm water and pick off his dead skin. There are frightening talks among specialists and multiple surgeries followed by "days of absolutely forlorn recovery." Against this backdrop of fear and pain, Byrd forges a riveting story that, in the end, is astonishingly uplifting.
[4 stars]

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