Columbus Books and Beer welcomes Wisconsin author and retired Milwaukee firefighter Gregory Renz for a discussion about his award-winning novel “Beneath the Flames” Thursday, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. at Cercis Brewing Company, 140 N. Dickason, Columbus.
Renz’s debut novel has gained attention with some stellar endorsements and reviews, including one from Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of the bestselling novel, “The Deep End of the Ocean.” She said, “Gregory Renz’s new novel is a triumph of poignancy, compassion, and restraint. In it, a man’s regret is transformed to triumph.” The novel has also won the Readers’ Favorite International Gold Medal.
While Renz was a fire captain, he was involved in the dramatic rescue of two little boys from their burning basement bedroom. He received a series of awards for this rescue, including induction into the Wisconsin Fire and Police Hall of Fame in 2006. When asked to share the dramatic rescue at several awards banquets, he was moved by the emotional responses he received and was struck by the power of his storytelling. Renz has always been an avid reader and thought maybe he could craft a compelling novel if he could learn how to get these stories on the page. He recalls thinking, how hard could that be? He would soon learn.
In 2008 Captain Renz retired, exchanging his turnout gear for a writing desk to pursue his passion, storytelling. After numerous creative writing courses through the University of Wisconsin and countless workshops, conferences, and revisions, he finally typed The End to “Beneath the Flames” which was inspired by two adorable little girls, around eight and five years of age, who lived across from an inner-city firehouse he was stationed at for three years. Those two girls stayed in his thoughts over the years, demanding he tell their story. They are two of the main characters in the novel. Renz hopes he did them justice.
“Beneath the Flames” is an intimate combination of love, race, and life as an urban firefighter. The story begins, however, in a rural setting when a farmhouse fire ends tragically and a young farmer and volunteer firefighter, Mitch Garner, blames himself for the heartbreaking outcome. Unable to forgive himself, his only hope for redemption is to leave Jennie, the girl he’s loved since high school, and journey from Wisconsin’s lush farmland to the decaying inner city of Milwaukee to prove himself as a professional firefighter.
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Mitch is assigned to the busiest firehouse in the heart of one of the most blighted areas of Milwaukee, the Core, where he’s viciously hazed by senior firefighters. He struggles to hold it together at horrific scenes of violence and can’t do anything right at fires. Within weeks, he’s ready to give up and quit. His salvation comes in the form of a brash adolescent girl, Jasmine Richardson. Mitch is assigned to tutor her little sister through a department mentoring program. Despite Jasmine’s contempt toward Mitch, her courage and devotion to her little sister inspire Mitch to stay and dedicate himself to helping her and the neighboring children overcome the hopelessness of growing up in crushing poverty. Trouble on the farm has Mitch torn between returning home to Jennie and staying in Milwaukee where he’ll be forced to risk his life to protect Jasmine from the leader of the One-Niner street gang.
Since the novel’s release in May, Renz has had a busy speaking schedule across the state. “We are so glad that he has included Columbus Books and Beer on his schedule,” said book club organizer Valerie Biel. “Greg is an amazing storyteller in person and on the page, and we’re so looking forward to our Dec. 5 discussion.”
Anyone who is interested is welcome to attend this “different kind of book club,” which allows authors and readers to come together in a fun, casual setting. The group meets in the private room at the back of Cercis Brewing. It is helpful to have read the book in advance, but it is not required. Copies of “Beneath the Flames” are available for sale at Cercis Brewing. Paperbacks are $15 and hardcovers are $20.
In addition to the Dec. 5 event, upcoming authors and titles include Sara Dahmen’s “Tinsmith 1865” on Jan. 9, Sarah Carlson’s “All the Walls of Belfast” on March 12, and Chris Norbury’s “Straight River” on May 14. More 2020 dates will be announced next month. Learn more about the group and these upcoming events on the “Books and Beer Columbus” Facebook page.