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In Michael O’Donnell’s debut novel, a father and son hide from danger in the White Mountains

The Boston College Law graduate drew inspiration for ‘Above the Fire’ from a time of COVID isolation with his own son

Michael O'Donnell, a BC Law School grad, has written a novel about a father and son hiking and hiding in New Hampshire.handout

As a fan of Cormac McCarthy, Peter Heller, and walking New England woods, I blazed through “Above the Fire,” by Michael O’Donnell in one weekend.

The former Somerville resident’s debut novel, released this month, is billed as fit for fans of McCarthy’s “The Road” and Heller’s “The Dog Stars,” but it veers away from the sunless apocalypse plagued by bands of marauding cannibals in the former, and by pandemic in the latter.

Instead, we have a tenderly wrought father-son novel — a year of homeschool, resolve, and isolation where a man closely observes his son as they become, to borrow a line from McCarthy, “each the other’s world entire.”

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O’Donnell, 44, an attorney based in Chicago, spent “months and months” during COVID lockdown with his young son. The book is “very much a love letter to him,” the 2004 Boston College Law School alum said in a phone interview from his home.

O’Donnell’s characters, a widower, Doug, and his 7-year-old son, Tim, from “near Boston,” venture to New Hampshire’s White Mountains for a days-long hike on the Presidential Trail, sometime in October. They stay in trail huts, eat snickerdoodles, meet fellow hikers. Then one day, a fire is spotted below. A hiker tells Doug: “Something’s going on down below. We’re not sure what. … Phones, internet, broadband — it’s all down. … [Someone] said there was heavy traffic on I-91 and I-93. People driving north” to Canada.

Rumors swirl of a cyberattack, of chaos in Philadelphia. Fearing a war, Doug decides he and Tim will winter above the fire in a trail hut.

Unlike in “The Road,” the actual crisis here is never spelled out. The book is a quiet quasi-thriller, more ode-to-nature-and-family The enemies here are loneliness, boredom, uncertainty, anxiety.

“Fire” is ripe for book-club discussion, a solid read for anyone who appreciates the stark beauty of New England woods — White Mountains hiker or not.

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"Above the Fire" is Michael O'Donnell's debut novel set in winter in the White Mountains.Handout

Q. What sparked this book?

A. It came out of the pandemic. My wife took on a new job in May 2020. My son was 7 — school was closed, no summer camp. The two of us were a pair. We’d ride our bikes down the middle of the street because there was no traffic. Ride scooters down the entire parking garage. Hike the forest preserve. We cemented a bond. I wanted to reflect on that, but didn’t want to write about COVID. I tried to think of a good story that could get at that parent-child experience.

Q. Why New Hampshire’s White Mountains?

A. That’s a really special place to me. My wife and I lived in Brighton and Somerville in the early 2000s. With two great buddies from BC, I’d climb Mount Washington or Mount Jefferson or Mount Madison. Five years ago, a buddy and I did the Presidential Traverse described in the book — and, boy, it kicks your butt. But it’s beautiful terrain. There are these awesome [Appalachian Mountain Club] cabins. It’s just a special place.

Q. Are the details inspired by your actual time there?

A. Some is, some is from other hiking journeys. Parts of the setting I had to tweak. For example, there are no fireplaces in AMC huts. People who know the range will spot that. I did take a couple liberties.

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Q. I love “The Road.” This book feels inspired by it.

A. Very much. I love “The Road,” too, but it’s so bleak. I remember being enthralled, but thinking: I don’t know if I could ever read that again. It has a tragic conclusion, even though there’s a grace-note of hope. The relationship between the father and son is poignant; I was inspired by that. But the landscape they move through is savage and grim. I thought it would be interesting to have a similar set of high stakes, but with a landscape that’s beautiful: mountains, open sky, snow, shelter.

Q. Unlike in “The Road,” where everyone’s out to get you, here, they run into just one person: the man in the orange socks.

A. At first Doug thinks he’s a villain. Turns out, he’s just a lonely guy. I think that mirrors our experience during COVID, where suddenly, we had to be a little bit fearful of one another. Maybe on some subconscious level, I was reflecting that.

Q. There seemed to be many COVID parallels. Doug gets used to the solitude. “The thought of a meeting room packed with adults filled him with dread.” That was a huge crisis people went through.

A. It’s something I still struggle with, to be honest. I went from a downtown 9-to-5 job to working primarily at home. I’ve gotten used to it. I’m an introvert by nature, and I’ve enjoyed the solitude. [Many have] struggled to find a balance.

Q. The ending is vague as to what, if anything, actually happened. Doug feared a war, but there are no signs of that.

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A. I think that’ll bother some readers, and won’t bother others. If you need to know what it was that was happening down below, that irresolution is tough. I was less interested in what was going on below than what was going on above: Doug and Tim’s relationship. It could be any roadblock in our lives — environmental crisis, war. What we have is each other.

Q. Did you have an idea of what happened?

A. I did, but I don’t want to share it. The imagination is maybe more powerful.



Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.