I bought this book at a convention the author was at after I saw him speak about YA writing and how, for a long time, YA was opposed to certain thought-provoking darkness. Oppegaard’s characters certainly have that. In Firebug of Balrog County Mack has an edgy, testosterone fueled angst. Pent up anger from losing his mother and pyromaniacal tendencies color Mack as damaged goods.
If I know anything about teenagers (I am a full time youth worker and it’s literally what I all do every day) Mack is a real character… I feel like I know him… maybe I was him. Like most kids, I wanted to either call the cops on him or give him a hug and tell him everything would be fine. Sometimes both at once.
I agree with the recommendation from School Library Journal that this is a YA book for the older end of the spectrum with references to sex and drinking. As a youth worker and someone who remembers my own teenage years, the references are gritty and real. Oppegaard captures the visceral, turbulent life of a damaged high school kid (that’s pretty much all of them) in rural USA.
The book makes you feel. I begrudgingly connected with Mack—as an adult I could see the foolishness and idiot things in his life and wanted to shake some sense into him (Mack’s sister, too) but couldn’t as the reader. It reminded me of what it was like to be a teenager struggling with the great injustices of the world and thinking, “I’d be happier if this whole place just burned.”