Leyna Krow’s 2017 book of short stories, I’m Fine, but You Appear to Be Sinking, is an eccentric mashup, complete with giant squid and space travels, told with a down-to-earth candor. Krow brings that same practical empathy and eye for the odd to her debut novel, Fire Season, a picaresque story of three schemers whose paths cross in 19th-century Spokane just as the Washington Territory is striving for statehood.
For sad sack bank manager Barton Heydale, the 1889 fire that devastates Spokane is a blessing in disguise. Paranoid and unpopular, Barton is on the verge of taking his own life when he realizes that, because of the disaster, the citizens of Spokane will be flocking to the bank for loans to rebuild. He takes advantage of their desperation by charging exorbitant interest rates and hiding the extra money in his house.
Barton also opens his home to Roslyn Beck, an alcoholic sex worker, after her residential hotel burns down. Unable to continue working without a room to call her own and determined to control her addiction, Roslyn is savvy enough to see through Barton’s intentions and also nurse her hidden talent: levitation. Barton and Roslyn must face the limits of their manipulative powers when they meet Quake Auchenbaucher, a con artist who’s impersonating a government fire inspector. Quake realizes that with statehood on the horizon, his days as a grifter might be numbered.
Within this darkly whimsical reimagining of the American West, Krow places microvignettes—miniature tales of magic, trickery and deception—in and around the novel’s main action. She plays fast and loose with the tropes of the frontier novel, leaning in to the notion of the unsettled West as a place where people could reinvent themselves. In Fire Season, con artists risk getting caught in their own traps, and the “fallen woman” lacks the proverbial heart of gold, but she emerges as the one character who can remake herself enough times to make it through.