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Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

Young Men and Fire (1992)

by Norman Maclean

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Catastrophes are only a part of the story of the crew of fifteen smoke jumpers who, in August 1949, stepped into the sky above the mountains of western Montana. Their story is the focal point of this fine narrative, but there is so much more that I have stopped in my read to share a brief quotation that both tells a tiny part of the story, but also provides a peek into the context that is as vast as the mountains themselves. The beauty of this book is not only in the story of those young men and the fire they leapt into, but also the way it is told by Norman Maclean.

"Yet we should also go on wondering if there is not some shape, form, design as of artistry in this universe we are entering that is composed of catastrophes and missing parts. Whether we are coming up or down the Gates of the Mountains, catastrophes everywhere enfold us as they do the river, and catastrophes may seem to be only the visible remains of defunct happenings of millions of years ago and the Rocky Mountains only the disintegrated explosions that darkened skies also millions of years ago and left behind the world dusted with gritty silicone. At least I should recognize this as much the same stuff as the little pieces of glass which in 1980 Mount St. Helens in Washington sprinkled over my cabin in Montana six hundred miles away, and anyone coming down the Gates of the Mountains can see that the laminations of ocean beds compressed in the cliffs on one side of the river match the laminations on the opposite cliffs, and, looking up, can see that an arch, now disappeared into sky, originally join both cliffs. There are also missing parts to the story of the lonely crosses ahead of us, almost invisible in deep grass near the top of a mountain. What if, by searching the earth and even the sky for these missing parts, we should find enough of them to see catastrophe change into the shape of remembered tragedy? Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts---hopefully, even the arch to the sky." (pp 46-47) ( )
  jwhenderson | Aug 24, 2019 |
Interesting book - but a bit too technical for me. I am interested in forest fires and the history of fire fighting as I live in the forest, but some portions of the book were pretty dry. It was interesting how Maclean would switch from that type of writing into his poetic, emotional, and spiritual style. ( )
  carolfoisset | Aug 20, 2019 |
I read somewhere that every equation or graph in a book decreases its sales by 10%. Publishers and editors take this maxim to ridiculous extremes; in one “popular economics” book I read the author described graphs (e.g., “A graph of X versus Y would look like an arch”) rather than printing them. It’s good, therefore, that the University of Chicago Press editors are made of sterner stuff, because the most moving feature of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire is a graph.

This is not to say that the text of the book isn’t moving as well. A Great Day to Fight Fire, reviewed earlier, tells the story of the men involved – how they grew up, what their lives were like, how they got to be smokejumpers. Maclean focuses instead on technical aspects – what was known about fires in 1949, how the fire might have moved and spread, and modern (for 1990, when Maclean died with the book unfinished) forest fire science. Yet, somehow, Young Men and Fire manages to be more moving and personal. Maclean made several trips to Mann Gulch – including one while the ashes were still warm, when he worked for the Forest Service himself, then several much later when he had retired from being an English Literature professor at the University of Chicago. He explored the area – which is brutal and steep and hot – even though he knew that a Forest Service fire scientist 20 years younger had died of a heart attack doing the same thing in 1949 – trying to piece together science and survivor’s narratives to make sense of what they saw on the ground.

Maclean’s description of the fire basics is essentially the same as Matthews’; started by lightning, burned slowly until it got out of timber, then rapidly as it caught dried grass and moved upslope. Wag Dodge realized things were going poorly and that his crew could never outrun the fire up the slope – so he started an “escape fire” – but nobody realized what the was trying to do and bypassed him. Two of the crew made it out by climbing up a slope; the rest tried to “sidehill” away from the fire, and didn’t. Maclean persuaded the two remaining survivors to return to the scene and explain what they did, why they did it, and where they were when they did it.

The survivors – Walter Rumsey and Robert Sallee – had remarkably accurate memories as they approached the rock slide they had used as a refuge. They noted – from hundreds of feet away – that the memorial cross for one of the victims (William Hellman, who survived to die of his burns the day after the fire) was in the wrong place; they remembered moving Hellman to a large flat rock to keep his burns out of the ashes, and giving him the only liquid they had to quench his thirst – the juice from a can of potatoes. They found the rock, poked around in the grass a little, and found a thirty-year-old rusty can. Trying to pick out their escape route was more problematical – although they agreed on where they had crossed the ridge they disagreed on where Dodge had lit his escape fire. Maclean, on a return trip, found the escape fire spot (still marked with a wooden cross, now fallen and covered with weeds, which Dodge had placed there when he returned to the scene) and the ridge crossing, identified by a juniper that Rumsey had tumbled into.

Maclean’s prose is remarkable – you might expect a literature professor to get overly eloquent, and there are times when Maclean is eloquent – but not overly. There are some digressions – a description of Albert Abraham Michaelson’s billiard skills and the comments of a veteran Forest Service firefighter on the wartime use of Mennonite smokejumpers, for example – but they all eventually tie together.

Near the end of the book, Maclean visits the Forest Service’s Fire Science lab and tries to answer some unsolved questions – why did Dodge’s escape fire burn directly up the slope while the main fire burned at right angles, up the gulch, and why was there disagreement over fire timing (the official report used 5:55 PM as the time the men died, based on the melted watch of Jim Harrison, but other recovered watches showed times from 5:42 to 6:40; a ranger down at the gulch outlet to the Missouri estimated the crew had died sometime between 5:35 and 5:45 but was persuaded to change his story to the “official” time). In 1949, the question of the “escape fire” was pretty important, because the father of one of the victims contended in a lawsuit that it was the escape fire, not the main fire, which killed the crews. Maclean’s explanation of the apparently anomalous behavior of the escape fire is that the main fire was creating its own wind, opposite to the prevailing wind direction, and Dodge was lucky enough to set his fire at a place and time where the two canceled out. In Maclean’s reconstruction the escape fire had nothing to do with the deaths – it burned upslope just enough to allow Dodge to shelter in the ashes, but was quickly surrounded and bypassed by the main fire.

The fire science lab had mathematical models of how fast a fire will progress, given fuel type, wind speed, and slope angle, and also how fast men can run on a slope. That’s what the graph I mentioned is all about – time on the X-axis and distance on the Y. There are two curves – a solid one showing the distance traveled by the men, including their head start, and a dashed one showing the distance travelled by the fire. They converge at 5:55 PM.

All our lives trace curves, some irregular and some purposeful. Some other curve converges with us – an advancing fire, perhaps; or the growth of a patch of cells; or the blood pressure in an artery; or the route of an automobile driven by a drunk. Sooner or later the curves touch, and our curve ends.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Jan 2, 2018 |
I read this book over 16 years ago yet every summer year-in and year-out, whenever I hear about raging forset fires somewhere in America or anywhere really; this book comes to mind. It's a true story about forest firefights known as Smokejumpers because they parachuted into the fire area in order to fight the fire. This is a gripping story that takes plance in Montana in 1949. ( )
  trek520 | Dec 7, 2015 |
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It was a few days after the tenth of August, 1949, when I first saw the Mann Gulch fire and started to become, even then in part consciously, a small part of its story.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0226500624, Paperback)

On August 5, 1949, lightning came crashing down in the vast spruce forest above Seeley Lake, Montana, and touched off a roaring blaze. As every Westerner knows, lightning means fire, but the fire that raged through Mann Gulch that day was huge--the sort that occurs only every few decades. A battery of paratrooper-firefighters, many of them fresh veterans of World War II, had been anticipating it, and even looking forward to the chance to fight a great fire. Before the day ended thirteen of those smokejumpers lay dead, their charred remains evidence that something had gone terribly wrong. Norman Maclean gives a thorough account of the incident in language not meant for the squeamish: "Burning to death on a mountainside is dying at least three times ... first, considerably ahead of the fire, you reach the verge of death in your boots and your legs; next, as you fail, you sink back in the region of strange gases and red and blue darts where there is no oxygen and here you die in your lungs; then you sink in prayer into the main fire that consumes." After August 1949, he notes, the Forest Service came to recognize that not all fires need to be fought and that fire benefits most forest ecosystems.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:42 -0400)

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On August 5, 1949, a crew of 15 of the U.S. Forest Service's elite airborne firefighters, the Smokejumpers, stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in Montana wilderness. Less than an hour later, all but three were dead or fatally burned in a "blowup," an explosive 2,000 degree firestorm 300 feet deep and 200 feet tall. Winner of a 1992 National Book Critic Award, Young men & fire consumed 14 years of Norman Maclean's life. He sifted through grief and controversy in search of the truth about the Mann Gulch tragedy, then wrote about it in excruciating detail. The sobering story of the worst disaster in the history of the Forest Service also embraces the themes of honor, death, compassion, rebirth, and the human spirit.

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