Krysten Ritter Crafts a Tale of Suspense and Small-town Horror in Bonfire

Bonfire is available in bookstores now.

Krysten Ritter’s debut novel is a mystery that deals in decade-old disappearances, toxic water, and a lot of obvious corruption in small-town Barrens, Indiana. Bonfire tells the story of Abby Williams, an environmental lawyer living in Chicago who left her hometown ten years ago and hasn’t been back since. Of course, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t kept tabs on the economic heart of the town, Optimal Plastics, which may be doing more harm than good.

When Abby goes home, she finds her abusive father ailing and shrunken, her high school torturers in roles she never would have imagined, and bizarre connections between Optimal Plastics and the disappearance of her once-best friend, Kaycee Mitchell, who supposedly skipped town ten years ago and was never heard from again.

Ritter crafts a suspenseful mystery in this 288-page novel, drawing unexpected connections and throwing in enough red herrings to make the reader question their instincts. It’s clear that none of the players in this story can be trusted, save for perhaps Abby — though she’s an unreliable narrator through and through. Unveiling the culprits behind “The Game” and how it’s evolved from when Abby was in school reveals some deep-seated horrors that one wouldn’t expect in an otherwise cut-and-dry Erin Brockovich narrative.

.@Krystenritter crafts a suspenseful mystery... with enough red herrings to make the reader question their instincts. #BonfireTheBook Click To Tweet


Bonfire is, in many ways, predictable. There’s poison in the town water, put there by Optimal Plastics, and there’s a money trail that twists and turns to hide the fact that the high-profile company is slowly killing residents. Abby is “the girl who got out” but has to go home to put her demons to rest, even though no one believes her when she says that everything — everything — traces back to the disappearance of Kaycee Mitchell.

Bonfire is also, in many ways, totally unpredictable. The incorporation of “The Game” threw me for a loop. I avoided spoilers for Bonfire like the plague, determined to judge it solely on its own merit rather than the opinions of others, so I honestly don’t know if anyone has mentioned this in their reviews… Even writing this one, I opted not to dive into others’, so as not to sway what I wanted to write.

Content Warnings: Sexual abuse, sexual violence, rape, suicide.

“The Game”, herein, involves high school boys getting girls drunk (or drugging them), then taking their photo with their clothes rucked up to show their underwear. These photos are shared among peers unless the victims pay a ransom to get them back. The shame of it leads one of the victims to commit suicide.

When Abby returns to Barrens, “The Game” has evolved. Girls are hand-picked for parties with pedophiles who work at Optimal Plastics. Their photos are still used as blackmail, but the stakes are even higher. If they don’t pay, or if their families squeal on what Optimal is doing to the town, all hell breaks loose.

It’s a horrifying sex abuse scandal that’s deeply rooted in misogyny and rape culture. Optimal’s corruption runs deep, and the network of people keeping the company in power is vast. On every official report, Optimal looks totally clean. But just below the surface, its employees are predators in every sense of the word.

Bonfire‘s recent release is unexpectedly timely. A recent onslaught of sexual assault accusations has led to the unprecedented downfall of powerful men in Hollywood and national media. TIME named “The Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year, including Tarana Burke and the #MeToo movement, which she founded way back in 2006. The movement gained significant traction when it became a Twitter hashtag earlier this year.

More: Victoria Namkung talks about sexual assault, her latest book, and #MeToo

Bonfire's recent release is unexpectedly timely. #BonfireTheBook @Krystenritter Click To Tweet

Though the official Bonfire book summary mentions “The Game”, it isn’t identified or defined. The details presented in the book are familiar from cases like the one in Steubenville, Ohio, where two teenagers raped a 16 year-old girl and shared photos and videos of the assault on social media.

Because the victim did not remember what had happened, scores of text messages and cellphone pictures provided much of the evidence. They were proof as well, some said, that Steubenville High School’s powerhouse football team held too much sway over other teenagers, who documented and traded pictures of the assault while doing little or nothing to protect the girl. — The New York Times

Ritter does something important in her presentation of “The Game” — she allows its perpetrators to suffer punishment, something that is often lacking in rape cases. According to RAINN, 994 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will walk free. Perpetrators of sexual violence are even less likely to go to prison than perpetrators of robbery or assault and battery crimes.

Although Bonfire is fictional, it does two important things: punishes perpetrators of sexual violence and pedophilia, and reminds readers that these crimes often happen in plain view, in places that are otherwise “thriving”.

Bonfire Rating: ★★★★☆

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