Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel The Poet X — winner of last year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature — thrived in its use of verse to illustrate the self-actualization journey of a teenage Dominicana aching to be heard. With every stanza, I grew more enamored. In With the Fire on High, Acevedo continues to push for Latinx literary representation, this time through a more traditional narrative structure.
Emoni Santiago is an Afro-Latina (“My father is Puerto Rican and he’s darker than my mom was, and her whole family is straight-from-the-Carolinas Black”) high-school senior from North Philly whose passions for food, spices, and cooking are deeply rooted. She’d have little hesitation about chasing her dream of becoming a chef if she weren’t also the mother of a 2-year-old baby girl, conceived during her freshman year. Her abuela helps as much as she can, just as she helped raise Emoni. (We learn Emoni’s mother died during childbirth and her father abandoned his parental post.) Emoni has gotten used to sacrificing what’s wanted for what’s needed, but the temptations of a charming transfer student named Malachi and the introduction of a culinary-arts elective to the school’s curriculum lead her to question whether her own happiness can be achieved without disappointing her loved ones.
Acevedo’s experience as an educator serves her well in the world of YA fiction. The way she generously crafts her characters offers validation to the fears and passions and ambitions of young people — like Emoni’s best friend Angelica, a talented artist who’s found true love with her first girlfriend, or Malachi, an aspiring doctor still grappling with the shooting death of his younger brother. Acevedo sees them and wants them to see themselves. While With the Fire on High is not written in verse, poetry lives in Acevedo’s syntax. The narrative is split into three sections: The Sour, The Savory, and The Bittersweet. Brief chapters therein (some only two or three pages) move the story steadily, giving each scene its own room to breathe.
My primary critique of Acevedo’s sophomore novel is a longing for more. The ingredients are there, but some moments never come to fruition. There’s a moment in the first section in which Emoni’s abuela alludes to the idea that she thinks having a child so young may have eclipsed Emoni’s dreams of becoming a chef. Down the line, Emoni’s decision-making and work ethic seem to shift Abuela’s perception of her capabilities, but it would have been nice to see that conversation more fully play out. Additionally, Emoni’s reconcilement with a schoolmate called “Pretty Leslie” — introduced as a stock mean-girl — feels too easy. Yes, most high-school rivalries are shallow at their core, but Acevedo hints at there being more depth holding up Leslie’s defenses. Also a tad deflating: a surprising bait-and-switch regarding the mystery surrounding Abuela’s health. Sometimes predictability isn’t the enemy.
Overall, With the Fire on High is a worthy follow-up to Acevedo’s nationally lauded debut. Emoni’s headstrong perseverance is inspiring. Acevedo’s clever imagery and explorations of language and culture make the journey not only beautiful, but thought-provoking. However, I was left craving the fleshy, savory story lines we know she’s capable of delivering. B+