Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review--Young Men and Fire

MacLean, Norman. Young Men and Fire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. B/W photos, maps. ISBN 9780226500621, $16.

While it might seem that fighting wild fires should have become safer in the years since the 1949 Mann Gulch fire recent events have proven that to be not the case.

Norman MacLean, in his masterpiece Young Men and Fire, takes readers closer than they would ever want or realistically need to be to a wild fire.

On a hot dry August afternoon 15 young men, 13 were under 24 years old, jumped out of an airplane into the remote forests of Montana to cut and dig a fire break in hopes of containing a fire in Mann Gulch. They carried limited supplies and tools.  They were confident in the abilities and planned on working through the night and being back at camp the next day. By late afternoon only three were still alive.

With a skill few authors could match MacLean works through the history of smoke jumping, the lives these young men would have been leading, the flight to the fire and the decision to jump, the awful turn of events as mother nature showed her wrath, the tragedy of the following day, the questions regarding those that were there and their actions and his research into the fire. Readers will meet the last two remaining survivors and follow along as they struggle to remember events that had happened nearly fifty years before.

The Mann Gulch memorial, installed in 1999,
 located at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon.
All along we see an author facing his own mortality through the deaths of twelve young men. MacLean interweaves stories of his life and we realize he understands he could have been one of those who left a lasting memory on Mann Gulch in the form of a concrete cross. Instead he was allowed to live a full life and devote the last of it to paying homage to these young men and making sure they were not forgotten.

This book is not for everybody. It does get a bit rambling at time. It doesn't always flow the way you might expect. The book had not been edited for publication at the time of MacLean's death nor was it complete. The publisher of the book has done little to change the book. That is good. For some readers there will also be a bit too much fire science involved. In researching the fire it became imperative to figure out what happened and why the fire behaved as it did. While certainly being far from a textbook readers will finish with a much better understanding of fire behavior and the danger that it can pose.

This is a book I have read on multiple occasions and will no doubt be returning to again. Highly recommended!

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