Fire on the Mountain

  • by Jane Kurtz
  • Publisher and date: Simon and Schuster, 1998
  • genre: folktale
  • age/ grade:ages 5-8

Synopsis: from
Challenged by his master to spend a bitter-cold night alone in the mountains, an Ethiopian boy bets his future that he will succeed. And he does, warmed only by the sight of a distant fire. When his master refuses to recognize the boy’s victory, the boy and his sister decide to beat the rich man at his own game.

Author’s Perspective: (from Jane’s website)

Jane Kurtz was born in Portland, Oregon, but when she was two years old, her parents moved to Ethiopia. Jane grew up in Maji, a small town in the southwest corner of the country. Since there were no televisions, radios, or movies, her memories are of climbing mountains, wading in rivers by the waterfalls, listening to stories, and making up her own stories, which she and her sisters acted out for days at a time. When she was in fourth grade, she went to boarding school in Addis Ababa. Her family left Ethiopia in the late 1970s, but a decade later, first her brother and his family and then her older sister and her family went back to teach in a girls’ school in Addis Ababa. By the time Jane came back to the United States for college, she felt there was no way to talk about her childhood home to people here. It took nearly twenty years to finally find a way – through her children’s books. Now she often speaks in schools and at conferences, sharing memories from her own childhood and bringing in things for the children to touch and taste and see and smell and hear from Ethiopia. “It’s been a healing and inspiring experience,” she says, “to re-connect with my childhood and also be able to help people know just a little of the beautiful country where I grew up.”

Literary Elements:

Character – The main character, Alemayu, has suffered many hardships and shows his bravery and strength throughout this Ethiopian folktale.

Setting – Mountains of Ethiopia

Plot – person vs person (Alemayu vs. the rich man) and person vs. nature (Alemayu’s time on the moutain)

Curriculum Connections:

Web Resources:


Children’s Literature (from

The tale has been told before, but the setting and retelling by Kurtz make this version a pleasure. Recently orphaned, Alemayu heads out to find his sister who is working in the house of a rich man. When the rich man brags about his night in the cold mountains and how he survived, Alemayu remarks on his uncle’s fortitude, braving the cold with only a thin cloak. Challenged by the rich man to do the same, Alemayu agrees knowing that, if he succeeds, he and his sister can start a new life with the gold that has been promised. When the rich man reneges on the bet, his servants conspire to embarrass him in front of friends and ensure that Alemayu and his sister get what is due. The Ethiopian setting is beautifully illustrated in E. B. Lewis’ watercolors.


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