Cover Image: Breathing Fire

Breathing Fire

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Member Reviews

A fascinating look at the injustices in the prison labor system, focusing specifically on female firefighters in California. From exceptionally little pay to inconsistencies and favoritism in how inmates are chosen for forestry, to how severely underutilized this training is when inmates leave prison, Lowe highlights tremendous room for improvement in the rehabilitative potential of the prison system. That said, I had hoped for a lot more.

While there are a few brief snippets of what it's like to go out and work a fire, and what risks inmates take on in those roles, there is very little detail on the actual firefighting. Camp conditions and training programs are discussed in broad strokes, but there is almost no texture to these accounts. There are hints to the primacy of relationships among crew members, but that aspect is heavily glossed over. A handful of inmate firefighters are profiled, and Lowe is intentional about portraying them as much more than their crimes, but the profiles are short and dispersed throughout the book, making it hard to keep the women straight or feel much connection to any of them.

I was left feeling like this book substantially overpromised and underdelivered. But if you're interested in learning more about how the prison system takes the time to train exceptionally well-prepared inmates and then release them to a world where no public agency is willing to hire them because of their record and how inefficient and wasteful and disrespectful that entire system is, this it may very well galvanize you.

My appreciation to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the eARC in exchange for the review.
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Breathing Fire is an interesting book, particularly for someone living outside of America, with little idea of the details of their prison system. Set mostly in California, an area beset by worsening fire storms due to climate change, Jaime Lowe's book is focused on female inmates who get "paid the prison salaries of $2.56 a day and up to $2 an hour when they were out on the line, fighting fire." If you knew nothing about these crews of incarcerated women fighting fires, you were not alone. What's even more impressive is these are the crews who work "on the ground, executing grunt work, the first line of defense cutting circles to try to contain flames and stop the forward progress of a fire," – in other words, risking their lives. Marching into an out-of-control fire is a situation where "the impulse is to run" which must overlay with the background desire to escape incarceration, and be very hard to overcome.

"One of the reasons women apply for fire came is not because they want to fight fire. It's because they want their family to see them in a nice place. A respectable place. A place that doesn't require inmate searches before and after a visit." While taking on this underpaid life threatening labour is a choice for inmates, it comes with a range of privileges that make the choice feel coerced. "Camp is the way to go. You get better visits. Better food. Everything is better in camp," has to be balanced with the idea that "'volunteer' is a relative term for the incarcerated."

Despite this, across the stories of the inmates contained in this book, you can definitely see the benefit that being an inmate firefighter has for the women: "So, for people to actually look at me like, as if I'm accomplishing things, which I am, that's a big deal." It was almost enough to make you feel good about fire camp as a personal and career development opportunity to break the cycle of incarceration for the women by giving "inmates skills to take their lives in new directions", well until you read about how America sucker punches these inmates by their recorded felonies making them ineligible to be firefighters when they complete their sentences. Luckily a bill has passed in 2020 to make this situation less exasperating.

In terms of the writing, Breathing Fire is an easy-to-read book. However it felt like Chapter 10—a history lesson of the Californian penal system—was disruptive to the flow of this book, and should have been integrated into the women's stories and experiences better.
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Great story, though admittedly the nature of inmate firefighting, especially how the state really takes advantage of inmate firefighters,  can be very frustrating to read about.
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Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. This is a fascinating book about the incarcerated female firefighting crews from the California prison system. The author gets access to about ten of these women and gives the history of each: Childhood, the crimes they committed to end up in jail, their experiences fight fire and their varied lives after prison. She also gives us a history of just how much California has relied of prison labor for the formation of the state through the years to the present day and their fighting some of the world’s most sprawling and intensive fire.
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Title does not match story

I thought this looked like a good book. I love reading about courageous women. The first 20 percent and a few parts after that were good. The rest of the book let me down.

This book was not so much about fire fighting. It was more about liberal conservation views and the penal system in California. I felt it was a bit political and I really do not want to read it in my books either right or left. Just wanted to read about courageous women fighting fires. 

Some might really like it, but it was not for me. I did read the book, I read all the books I start. I was very much disappointed in the content. 

Thanks to Jaime Lowe, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and NetGalley for allowing me to read a copy of the book for an honest review which I have given.
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