The Fire Within is a story of squirrels and dragons. David, a college student, rents a room in the house of Liz Pennykettle and her 11 year old daughter Lucy. Although he enjoys living there, he begins to notice that things are “weird.” Liz sculpts clay dragons that seem to have a life of their own. Lucy often lets things slip that her mother tries to cover up. In bits and pieces, an ancient story is revealed. But the novel itself is mostly about saving a squirrel. And this makes sense in the world of the novel.
I enjoyed the quirky world, which is recognizable but unique. The sweet but teasing interactions among the characters felt caring and realistic. I enjoyed hanging out with them.
My daughter loved this book and recommended it to me. I did enjoy it, although it’s clear I’m not the target audience. My cynical brain felt that Lucy is portrayed as younger than her 11 years (my kids are 9 and 11, so I know a wide range of 11ish year old girls) and that bothered me a little. Also, I’ve seen injured squirrels in our yard, including squirrels that were blind in one eye, and they actually functioned remarkably well. So on two fronts I had to actively suspend my disbelief to go along with the plot. But overall, that was worth it.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Violence & Scariness
Overall the violence is mild. Conker—the injured squirrel—drives a lot of the plot. There are traps, a nasty neighbor, and a somewhat malicious crow. Both David and Lucy get pretty worked up about Conker and the other squirrels—not surprisingly, I identified with Liz who stayed pretty calm throughout and wondered why everyone else was so tense.
In the end, even though Lucy and David rescue him, Conker dies. Lucy is upset, of course, but David is pretty devastated—this isn’t the happy ending they were supposed to have. My daughter cried when she read that part, but I had an urge to tell him to act like the grown up he is. I think perhaps I’m a tad too cynical to fully appreciate this book. The burial, though, is touching. So is the planting of the new tree in honor of Conker.
Liz is a single mom and Lucy’s dad is completely missing from the picture, almost as though he doesn’t exist. I suspect this may play a role in future stories. But Liz and Lucy have a loving and supportive relationship, even if Liz does seem to know more than she possibly could (that’s part of the weirdness of living with the Pennykettles). David is often referred to as “the tenant” which shows his outsider status, but through the course of the book he becomes more and more like family and learns more and more of the secrets.
Although nothing dire happens, there are several times when rules are broken to make things turn out the way they “should.” For instance, Sophie from the animal refuge encourages Conker and his buddy Snigger to “escape” from their cage into a cat carrier so she can take them home to Lucy and David. Liz always knows what’s actually going on, but Lucy and David frequently try to do things behind her back.
Sophie and David are obviously attracted to each other. Once they almost kiss! Their slightly bumbling interactions are cute.
This is a cute, sweet story that covers a lot of mostly unrelated ground—there’s the story about the squirrels, which is the plot of this novel, and the story about the dragons, which is the plot of the series. It’s fairly long, so it’s perfect for young precocious readers. Readers will feel smart as they piece together the story faster that David does. My 11 year old daughter loved this book and suspects her 9 year old brother will also enjoy it. She bought the next book in the series with her own money, so that’s quite a recommendation!
The Fire Within by Chris d’Lacey
Published in 2001 by Watts Publishing Group
First in a series, Last Dragon Chronicles
Read my daughter’s copy