Part comedy, part mystery, part allegory, On Fire is narrated alternately by two characters: Matti Iverly, a fourteen-year-old girl with Tourette Syndrome. In Matti’s case, her tics are primarily vocal. As she confides early in the book, “At school they called me Tourette’s Girl, like I came out of a phone booth wearing a costume and made funny noises for people’s entertainment. But I was a serious person, waiting for a serious purpose.” When a young man with amnesia wonders out of the heart of wildfire country, Matti finds that purpose and fulfills it with courage, humour and dignity.
Within the scope of the story, it’s clear that Matti rules despite the isolation of her village, and the ominous care-taking to which she commits herself in trying to right the life of Dan, the strange seventeen-year-old teen with amnesia who mysteriously appears out of the smoke and fire and then disappears again. When Dan first takes up the narration, he’s hiding out in a ghost town across the lake from Matti’s village. It’s clear he’s far more troubled than she realized. He’s haunted by ghosts and demons and vague memories of something that happened to him in the mountains.
As Dan appears almost mythically out of a forest fire area and collapses at Matti’s feet, he reverses the journey countless adolescent males make every year into the wildfire we call mental illness. Dan is lucky. He finds Matti Iverly. Because of her stubborn persistence, he connects with an odd assortment of people who as much as any help he gets from doctors, assist him in reassembling his life. They become his community of concern, his family. Through a series of synchronous events, Matti finds Dan again in a mental hospital. She becomes very much a part of his path back to reality, at least his version of it. As a result we see her grow into a person who believes in her own strength, and Dan morph into a young man who feels he has a future.