In late 2017, when the massive Thomas fire raged in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, Kim Cantin and her family evacuated in response to several alerts issued by local authorities due to strong winds, but then returned home when the fires were contained and eventually extinguished. Later, in the early morning hours of January 9, 2018, when early evacuation might have prevented loss of life, no such order was issued. Torrential rains literally washed a large portion of mountainside south, directly through the Cantin home on its way to the Pacific Ocean, carrying tons of debris with it. Twenty-three people died. Two of the dead were Dave and Jack Cantin.
Cantin begins her memoir, Where Yellow Flowers Bloom, with the dramatic and harrowing rescue of herself and her daughter, then continues with a lovely description of her family’s traditional holiday observances, happy in each other’s company. Their world soon came crashing down when they were awakened by the sound of heavy rain and the mountains dissolving above them. Dave was able to make it outside before the mudslide reached them, but Kim and their two children, Jack, and Lauren, were still inside when the gigantic wave of muck and debris hit just moments later. Kim and Lauren were buried under mud, rock, and mangled remains of cars and buildings, but eventually found alive. Dave’s body was washed out to Hammond Beach; Jack’s body could not be found.
After the shock of loss and physical healing is described, the middle portion of the book, and the longest section, deals with the search for Jack’s body. When Kim discovers that the sheriff’s department has stopped searching for bodies, she locates professionals to help her find her son. She engages psychics, or intuitives, an anthropology professor, and rescue dogs with their handlers to comb the area for human remains. Three years later, a few fragments of bone are tentatively identified as Jack’s in a pile of debris not far from the former site of the Cantin home. Nearby, vibrant yellow and white wildflowers bloomed, undaunted by the tragedy that had come before. The discovery of both remains and breathtaking beauty allowed Kim a sense of closure and hope for healing.
Cantin’s narrative is clear and engaging, full of evocative details. The length and intensity of the search for Jack’s remains dominates the book, illustrating a mother’s determination to find her missing child. Perhaps the energy focused on searching is helpful in distracting Cantin from facing the totality of her emotional trauma. The search distances readers from experiencing the mother’s and daughter’s emotional lives, however. Those depths may be explored by the author in time, but this journey is not yet complete. I suspect it will take a lifetime to process. Meanwhile, there is reason for optimism. Kim Cantin demonstrates a determination to not only survive but thrive in the aftermath of horrific loss.