Monday, September 17, 2012

32: Young Men and Fire

Young Men and Fire
Norman Maclean
3 stars

If you aren't familiar with Norman Maclean, he is the author of A River Runs Through It, which you are more likely to be familiar with-- at least the movie version. I've read some of Maclean's other work, and this non-fiction book has been on my to-read list for years. I'm glad I finally checked it out, though it wasn't quite what I was expecting.

In 1949, a crew of 15 Forest Service smokejumpers descended on what they thought would be a routine fire-fighting operation in Mann Gulch, a remote location in the Montana wilderness. Two hours later, all but three of these men were dead. The real story of what happened in that gulch is what Maclean sought out to discover and record for posterity. On the surface, this book delves deeply into fire theories and wind speed and all sorts of things I would never have learned about had I not read this book-- but on a deeper level, this book is about life, and dying, and youth, and old age, and humanity. That may sound like a cliche, but it's true. Maclean wove quite a bit into his telling of this tale.

From a Goodreads summary:
These first deaths among the Forest Service's elite firefighters prompted widespread examination of federal fire policy, of the field of fire science, and of the frailty of young men. For Maclean, who witnessed the fire from the ground in August of 1949,  and even then he knew he would one day become a part of its story, it is a story of Montana, of the ways of wildfires, firefighters, and fire scientists, and especially of a crew, young and proud, who "hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy." This tale is also Maclean's own, the story of a writer obsessed by a strange and human horror, unable to let the truth die with these young men, searching for the last - and lasting - word. A canvas on which to tell many stories, including the story of his research into the story itself. And finally Nature's violence colliding with human fallibility.      Haunted by these deaths for forty years, Norman Maclean returned to the scene with two of the survivors and pursues the mysteries that Mann Gulch has kept hidden since 1949.  From the words of witnesses, the evidence of history, and the research of fire scientists, Maclean at last assembles the scattered pieces of the Mann Gulch tragedy; in his last work that consumed 14 years of his life, and earned a 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award.       The excruciating detail of this book makes for a sobering reading experience. Maclean -- a former University of Chicago English professor and avid fisherman -- also wrote A River Runs Through It and Other Stories , which is set along the Missouri River, one gulch downstream from Mann Gulch.
One of the most fascinating parts of the Mann Gulch story is a controversial decision made by the crew foreman when it became clear to him that he and most of his crew would not be able to make it to the top of the ridge ahead of the quickly spreading fire. He decided to light what is now known as an escape fire ahead of the fire coming up behind them, and lie down in the hot ashes to let the other fire pass over. He tried to get his crew to enter his escape fire, but in the chaos and fear, not a single one of them listened to him. As a result, all the rest of the crew (save two who had made it to the top of the ridge ahead of everyone) perished.  While escape fires are now recognized as a legitimate means to escape death in such situations, at the time of the Mann Gulch fire they were not. The foreman acted on instinct alone. How differently things could have turned out if his crew had followed his orders.

I noted in my Goodreads review of this book that I have come to the conclusion that Maclean's writing is an acquired taste. Some of it I don't connect with-- he uses a lot of imagery that doesn't resound with me. But he also, every now and then, busts out a gem that leaves me thinking. And so I keep coming back for more. This book, I'll admit, was kind of slow at times. There is one pretty technical section that I nearly didn't get through, just because I'm not that into the science side of fires. I was fascinated with the human side of the story, though, and that kept me going. I'm glad I finished it. It gets a solid three stars from me.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite parts, found at the end.

"I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death."

1 comment:

  1. Great review. Interestingly enough, one of the books I read (review still pending) actually touched on the Mann Gulch fire.