While reading One Foot in the Black: A Wildland Firefighter’s Story, I constantly had to double-check to make sure I was reading a work of fiction and not an autobiography. Kurt L. Kamm’s story is that powerful, and telling the story from the main character’s point of view blurs that line between fact and fiction even more.
Greg Kowalski is a man with a troubled past. His childhood is… Well, let’s just say I sincerely hope this young man’s childhood experiences are only a work of fiction. Greg grows up with a father who wants nothing to do with him and a mother who has given up because of the abuse she receives from her husband. Greg has a sister too, but she honestly doesn’t make much of an impression.
Growing up in the environment he did, it’s easy to see why Greg seems emotionally distant at times, but it still makes it tough to like him as a main character at times. Put bluntly, Greg is occasionally a jerk, displaying the same attitude towards others that his father aimed at him. He’s the type of guy I would feel sorry for, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.
The book is set up as two stories in one, with each chapter alternating between the two tales. One story revolves around Greg’s childhood, showing us what he had to endure until he was finally able to escape at the age of nineteen. The other story deals with Greg’s history as a fireman, taking us through his time as a trainee all the way to him actually fighting fires.
My main complaint with the book is that I was robbed of a moment that could have been filled with plenty of drama and emotion, with the author himself giving away an important element on the first page. The story starts with Greg telling how a fire caught him and his fellow firefighters off-guard, explaining how he watched a man go up in flames. That man is TB, a surrogate father to Greg. He’s a genuinely nice guy but it’s hard to get attached to him because we already know his fate. Later in the book, when we reach the point of actually seeing that moment through Greg’s eyes, the emotion that could be there simply isn’t. Greg is surprised to lose the man he views as a second father, but we’ve seen it coming since we opened the book. Personally, I would have preferred a different opening; one that kept the identity of the man that went up in flames a secret.
Aside from that, One Foot in the Black: A Wildland Firefighter’s Story by Kurt L. Kamm is an intriguing read, offering some good insight into what it’s like to train to fight fires for a living. However, you don’t need a desire to be a firefighter to enjoy the story because Greg’s life is an interesting one that will suck you in as soon as you start reading.