Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

EDIT: more of my notes on this book available here.

Black Larry told me I should read this book, and I’m so glad I did. Thank you, sir.

young men and fireI struggle to tell you how good this book is. You know I loved Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. This, though lesser known, is better.

Young Men and Fire is the true story of the Mann Gulch fire in Montana in 1949, in which 13 smokejumpers of a crew of 16 were killed. Maclean was in the area in the days after the deaths, and was moved – as any of us would have been moved, but more intimately, because he had worked with the Forest Service and fought fires himself, and had one particularly frightening close call. He hiked out to see the still-smoldering forest as the Mann Gulch fire died out, and he knew even in 1949 that he would tell the story of those 13 men and what happened there.

He started his research and writing in earnest in his late 70’s, years later, after the publication of A River Runs Through It that made him moderately famous, and which too he had written after retirement. But Mann Gulch had always been on his mind.

As I said in my book beginning post, I learned quickly that this was a posthumous publication, a cooperative effort by his publisher and his son to put together as faithfully as they could what he had been working on. He died in 1990 and the book was published in ’92. In my observation, it must have been very nearly finished, and/or their editing work is seamless, because it feels decidedly like a finished work to me, and it all feels like Maclean.

It begins with a story, Black Ghost, about Maclean’s visit to the scene of the tragedy while the fire still sputters, in which he compares it to his earlier experiences. This short story sets the background of Maclean’s continuing fascination with the Mann Gulch fire. Then the bulk of the book is divided into three parts. They are untitled, but I saw a clear method of division; I’ll share my impression here, and note that it’s my own and from memory. Part One is about the events of 1949, told narrative-style with what information Maclean has and relatively less commentary than we’ll find later on; it relates the events of the days on which a fire was spotted, men raced towards it, the fire blew up, men ran, and men died and their bodies were found. Part Two relates Maclean’s research: it’s the story of his life since 1949, in which he thinks and muses, travels, researches, draws diagrams, visits with the two survivors, and climbs the steep gulch repeatedly to examine minutely the remaining evidence. Part Three is a brief 9 pages in which he tries to say what the Mann Gulch fire really was, and what young men might have felt and thought in their final moments. Throughout, and concluding in Part Three, Maclean discusses the meaning and power and definition of tragedy in life and in art. There are also plentiful religious allusions. I’m not clear on Maclean’s own relationship to a church – he doesn’t make it abundantly clear – but he does make very clear that he was raised by a Presbyterian minister (which we know well from A River Runs Through It), and his religious training comes through, not least with many references to the stations of the cross.

Briefly, the Mann Gulch fire looked routine to a team of Smokejumpers from the air (and to the pilot and spotter who released them), although there were some especially challenging elements of wind that required men and equipment to be spread out over a larger area than usual, which cost them time in regrouping. Also, the team’s radio did not survive its “jump,” which would come to be significant. Once on the ground, their very experienced fire foreman went off to investigate and quickly concluded that they had better head the other way; while heading his team one way, they found fire suddenly in front of them as well as behind; and thus began what Maclean calls their race against fire. In minutes, a fire of such ferocity and speed that they could not understand it had overtaken the team and… the details are ugly. Five men survived the fire, two so badly burned that they died around noon the next day, which appears to have been a mercy. One of the remaining three survivors was the foreman, who would receive a lot of flak for the deaths of his mean; the other two were the youngest and most inexperienced of the crew, one of whom had lied about his age and was still not old enough to actually be jumping out of airplanes into forest fires.

To say that this is a powerful story is both understatement and unnecessary. Sixteen men, the majority of whom were just boys really, thought they were going to do a routine job; they were brave, but their bravery was born of confidence rather than a comprehension of what they were up against. The Smokejumpers were a brand new part of the Forest Service – established in 1940, and slowed during World War II by the bulk of them going overseas to jump out of planes for other purposes – and the boys themselves were young, too, “still so young they hadn’t learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.” It doesn’t work to accuse them of hubris. Simply, a whole lot of just rotten luck, a failure to understand fire, a lack of experience (both personally and institutionally), and a confluence of events that created a perfect storm of fire, caused these young men horrible suffering and created an event that rocked the lives of many. Obviously, their families & loved ones were effected; also the Forest Service, which reacted very defensively and was sued by several families; and ramifications were felt in the burgeoning scientific understanding of forest fires and how they work, all of which Maclean explores.

This is a beautiful eulogy to 13 men, and an eloquent and compassionate chronicle of a significant event. It’s also a story personal to Maclean, about his fascination with this fire and the fate of those 13 men, and the telling of this story as his “homespun anti-shuffleboard philosophy of what to do when I was old enough to be scripturally dead” (meaning, he’d lived his three score and ten). I love that the process of researching the story and writing it is the story itself; they are inextricable in Maclean’s version, and that feels right. Of course, as a reader, writer, and lover of books and stories, that makes perfect sense to me.

Maclean’s version is beautifully written, complete and complex, with a respect for all the nuances, unknowns, and conflicting version and conflicting points of view. He examines the accusations made against the foreman who saved himself by setting an “escape fire” and was unsuccessful in convincing his men to join him – which might have saved them, too – and thereby invented a technique which is now a part of fire defense. He examines the different impressions of events by the two survivors and the ranger who was one of the first on the scene after the deaths (and who took copious notes and was a meticulous observer). In fact, he examines everything available to him in exhaustive detail, and justifies his conclusions and questions with a base in science: geography, weather, and what we know about fire (which is more than we knew in 1949, thanks in part to those 13 deaths).

The title derives from Maclean’s discussion of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, of which the Smokejumpers interact with three in their normal line of work: earth, air, and fire; by the end of the book he makes reference to the elemental nature of young men. Thus the title: the action of this book is at the intersection between the elemental forces of young men and fire.

Young Men and Fire is a work of art and of poetry, and so much more. It’s definitely one of the best books I have read or will read this year.

Rating: a rare 10 feet downgulch.

Further thoughts…

My personal tragedy now is that Maclean only wrote two books and I have now read them. I do see, though, that The Norman Maclean Reader includes “previously unpublished materials with incidental writings and selections from his two masterpieces” (says the University of Chicago Press), so I have that to look forward to. Also, I just learned that Maclean’s son has written a parallel work about a later fatal wildfire, Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, and my copy is on its way to me now.

12 Responses

  1. with today’s news of 19 firefighters dying in NW Arizona, it is sadly apparent that our deteriorating biosphere will continue to provide ample material for tragic fatal wildfire stories; your timing with this review is eerie, and provides a thoughtful backdrop to the news

  2. This one sounded really interesting from your teaser last week and your review you definitely sold me on this one. I’ll have to track it down! thanks

  3. […] decided to do a whole separate post (because my review was… long) sharing my notes as I read this book. As I’ve said before, I like to use a […]

  4. […] I’ve just read in the introduction, Maclean’s obsession with the Mann Gulch Fire (see Young Men and Fire) is at least matched by his obsession with Custer; but his high standards and (argues the editor […]

  5. […] his published work that I’ve found, following A River Runs Through It, and other stories and Young Men and Fire. I am very sorry to have reached this end. Maybe I’ll still find more. Also, I’m […]

  6. […] about. It is a geographically remote and wild area, not easily reached. He refers several times in Young Men and Fire and in his related notes and letters (in The Norman Maclean Reader) to the “truculent […]

  7. […] Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean (nonfiction) […]

  8. […] reader to start with Maclean’s masterpieces, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories and Young Men and Fire. This collection makes sense with those works as background, and most appeals to readers whose […]

  9. […] the rest here. Thanks, Tassava. I hope you love Young Men and Fire as much as I did, […]

  10. […] John N. Maclean is the son of Norman Maclean, who wrote the absolutely earthshattering 1992 book Young Men and Fire about the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 and the tragic deaths of thirteen wildland firefighters there. […]

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