In With the Fire on High, Elizabeth Acevedo’s highly-anticipated sophomore novel after the success of her debut, The Poet X, we meet Emoni Santiago, a young mother getting ready to enter the adult world with a toddler in her care. As another of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Afro-Latina heroines with a bright talent and a determination to succeed, Emoni has already had to make difficult, life-changing choices, so figuring out classes and college admissions are par for the course.
Emoni’s life is a balancing act of school, work, and the people who make up Emoni’s family, like her ‘Buela and her daughter Babygirl, who are the two bright members of Emoni’s household. Then there’s her best friend Angelica, her father Julio (who lives in Puerto Rico and maintains his role as a father from afar), Tyrone (who is Babygirl’s father and shares custody), as well as Malachi, the new boy at school who would be well on his way to becoming a close friend if Emoni didn’t keep him at arm’s length. “I don’t have time for boys,” she says, and it’s true — the way Emoni has lived her life since her daughter was born is reflective of serving everyone else’s needs before her own wishes.
Emoni’s normal pace of life changes slightly when, just after the school year begins, she has the opportunity to take a culinary arts elective. As a part of this class, there’s a chance to go on a week-long trip to Spain and learn from professional chefs abroad. If Emoni can find a way to raise the funds to support herself and her classmates for the trip, it could be the kind of chance she’s been waiting for to pursue her passions and learn about how she might turn her love of cooking into something even greater than it already is — a career.
In this way, Acevedo welcomes us into the landscape of Emoni’s life. We become more acquainted with Emoni’s magical talent and passion for cooking, the most integral aspect of her identity. When Emoni is in the kitchen, she occupies the only space in the story that allows her a break from focusing on her relationships with other people in order to turn inwards and focus on herself. Cooking gives Emoni time to process her feelings, find clarity, and include room to be creative, to play. It’s beautiful, too, to see how the results of Emoni’s cooking affect those who eat her food — how it makes ‘Buela cry to think of her childhood, how it makes even strangers feel overcome by memories of long ago: feelings of being taken care of, a remembrance of family, and a sense of home above all.
Emoni sometimes feels like “a full pot of water with the fire on high.” She knows herself incredibly well, and when the heat is on, she knows how to use the fire to make something wonderful, to cook something beautiful. As a reader, it’s a privilege to experience a young character who holds so much emotional wisdom. This wisdom helps her, and yet it doesn’t devalue the difficulty of what it’s like to be seventeen at the end of high school, making big decisions about the future. It merely offers a clarity that is reassuring in its steadiness — when Emoni has been faced with uncertainty or difficulty, she has asked herself, “’Can I do this?’ And I realized there wasn’t going to be a perfect answer,” she adds, “only the right answer for me.”
Acevedo’s language is as magical as Emoni’s cooking. Within the specific details of Emoni’s life are the trials and questions of all good coming-of-age stories, a masterful take on life’s central issues. Acevedo is able to portray life fully and honestly by including life’s complications, such as systems of oppression and marginalization — structural racism and classism, for example, are inherent parts of Emoni’s world and how she operates within it. The choice to name her daughter Emma so her name would not be dismissed at first sight on a job resume, or the need to work part-time and organize extra fund-raisers to add support to ‘Buela’s disability checks are challenges Emoni faces that are equal to her schoolwork or her post-graduation plans.
The realism in the novel speaks to something deep and true for every reader. With her characters, Acevedo effortlessly appeals to the universal experience for anyone who has ever had to make a difficult decision, or who will ever have to make one. Because of Emoni’s strength, clarity, and steadfastness in voice, as well as Acevedo’s deft plotting, With the Fire on High holds an assurance in the imperative to follow one’s own instincts to make the right choices — one that it successfully passes on to its readers. Everything changes — Emoni knows this — but there are some things that don’t, and by learning what those parts of life are and how to cherish them, perhaps we can move forward confidently into the life we wish to lead.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
May 7, 2019