Fire on Headless Mountain

by Iain Lawrence (Author)

Reading Level: 4th – 5th Grade

Separated from his siblings in the midst of a dangerous forest fire, 11-year-old Virgil must find a way to survive using only his wits and the lessons his late mother taught him about the wilderness.

Virgil is making his older siblings trek to a mountain lake on a trip unlike any they've have taken before. They carry precious cargo: the ashes of their beloved mother, who asked that her remains be scattered at her favorite spot. But when a forest fire is sparked by a bolt of lightning at the exact moment when their van breaks down, the journey quickly turns to disaster.

While the oldest, Josh, is gone to find help, Virgil and his sister, Kaitlyn, spot fleeing animals and soon see flames flickering above the tree line. Once the sky begins to darken with the haze of burning timber, Virgil finds himself separated from his sister and left alone in the wilderness. He isn't sure he can make it, but with the memory of his late mother, a science teacher, and all her lessons to guide him, he quickly learns that not everything has a perfect explanation and survival starts with letting go.

Fire on Headless Mountain showcases not only the overwhelming beauty and terrifying power of nature, but also the gift of memory when facing great emotional and physical trials. Lessons on ecosystems and fire safety are also seamlessly interwoven into this thrilling adventure tale.


"Lawrence, the Canadian writer whose High Seas Trilogy encompassed three chilling historical novels, now offers a menacing, contemporary tale of dread, danger, and revenge. Portraying family dynamics and middle-school antics with equal insight and attention to detail, Igor's first-person narrative is absorbing."-Booklist

"Featuring effective worldbuilding, this is a great, suspenseful tale of terror for upper middle graders".-School Library Journal

"Friendship difficulties provide a contrast and an anchor to the terrifying threat, and the various plot elements are deftly tied together in a fitting twist that will have readers quickly turning the pages. Filled with suspense and intrigue.-Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

This page-turning and atmospheric adventure story also teaches fascinating science skills. A superb tale of survival and courage.

Publishers Weekly

When 11-year-old Virgil Pepper and his siblings, 19-year-old Joshua and 15-year-old Kaitlyn, head to spread their mother's ashes at her favorite forest haunt, Little Lost Lake, the engine on their camper van unexpectedly blows. Their artistic father hasn't joined them, and though the kids' science teacher mother taught them excellent survival skills, escalating disasters follow their arrival alongside a wild electrical storm. The siblings lack food and water, the only nearby structure is the eerie "Sasquatch museum," Kaitlyn injures her ankle falling from a tree, and a fast-moving wildfire cuts off the soon-separated siblings' path to safety. Vividly wrought, scientifically grounded text layers facts to develop the protagonists' plight, while occasionally pace-slowing flashbacks hint at their parents' differing worldviews. Lawrence (Deadman's Castle) draws from his experience fighting forest fires; that expertise informs harrowing descriptions of the out-of-control blaze, creating an elucidating and hopeful portrait of grief amid the natural world. Characters cue as white. Ages 9-12. Agent: Danielle Egan-Miller, Browne & Miller Literary. (Aug.)

Copyright 2022 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

[A] richly imaginative survival adventure. . . . the unrelenting drama of their immediate peril makes for a nail-biting read, sure to satisfy fans of Paulsen's Hatchet. —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Iain Lawrence
Iain Lawrence once had a summer job fighting forest fires on Vancouver Island. He is the author of seventeen novels for young readers that have received such accolades as Canada's Governor General's Award for Children's Literature and the California Young Reader Medal. Among the many books he has written are The Wreckers, Ghost Boy, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, The Skeleton Tree, and most recently Deadman's Castle. He lives in the Gulf Islands, British Columbia. Visit him at
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Publication date
August 20, 2022

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