Fire on the Mountain by John N. Maclean

This is the 18th book I’ve read this year, and easily the most affecting.

I try not to lead with what somebody’s dad did before them, respecting (for example) Joe Hill’s desire to live outside of Stephen King’s considerable shadow, but this one is just too close to its forebear. 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. This book, Fire on the Mountain (1999), does a similar job of rumination on a markedly similar event, the 1994 South Canyon fire, and the deaths of fourteen wildland firefighters. The two events and the two books are too parallel for me to avoid noting this context up front.

Fire on the Mountain is riveting, suspenseful even though the reader knows the outcome from the start. It is better (or worse, if you like) than a horror novel in its pervasive sense of foreboding and doom.

The realization came to Cuoco that the front would strike with almost no warning. Half the fires in western Colorado could explode, and if someone didn’t warn firefighters, they could be caught in harm’s way.

At minutes past noon the main front provided the final confirmation, sweeping into Grand Junction with sudden winds just as the lightning storm had four days earlier. For Cuoco this was ‘an adrenaline-pushing, severe weather condition,’ the same as a tornado warning.

Because this is nonfiction – these are real lives lost – it carries a little extra weight. And there’s just something about fire and, I submit, wildland fire in particular, and the special bravery (or foolhardiness?) and undeniable toughness of the firefighters who venture against it… something especially elemental, romantic, compelling. It makes for fine literature and tempts us to neverending consideration. Maclean’s writing focuses on those elemental forces at work, both natural and human ones. This is in part an investigative work, an attempt to figure out what happened out there – what went wrong, what might have been preventable, and who (if anyone) might be to blame. There were investigations into the South Canyon fire, and attempts to assign blame, and Maclean is hesitant to crucify anyone, but he does wind up trying to correct the record, easing blame in certain quarters (the firefighters themselves) and offer a little more in others (management staff and agencies). He doesn’t get judgmental til the final pages (and even then I don’t mean this as a criticism; he’s here, after all, to make a judgment), at which point it felt perhaps a little jarring to slide into that tone. But he also made good arguments throughout – by the time Maclean begins to assign blame, his points are well proven.

It is a difficult book to read, emotionally, and yet so propulsive that it was hard to turn away from, too. There was one night in particular when I had to force myself to put it down and get to bed before midnight (on a school night!), knowing that that would be best for me (as reader as well as teacher) and for my impression of the book.

I’m deeply impressed and moved. I will say, though, that it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Young Men and Fire, at least for me and according to my memory of that earlier book (which I read nearly ten years ago). The first I recall having more zoomed-out, existential-philosophy-level meditation to it. The religious imagery of the stations of the cross and the relentless focus on the firefighters’ final moments lent it a mythic quality. (You will rarely find me praising a book for its religious imagery.) There was something magical there. This book is excellent; but it remains a little closer to earth, as a work of thoughtful investigative journalism and compassionate remembrance of lives lost. I had forgotten, though, that Young Men and Fire was published posthumously, with John Maclean’s involvement, so that’s an interesting point.

Hard to read, but so worth it.


Rating: 8 steps.

Above the Smoke: A Family Album of Pocahontas County Fire Towers by Leanna Alderman and Eleanor Mahoney

Loaned by a friend who found out I’m into fire towers, this book has a particularly local focus, and I dug it. This project began when LeAnna Alderman, as a VISTA volunteer at Allegheny Mountain Radio, interviewed a retired fire lookout, and was so absorbed that she pursued more such interviews. She left the station before she could finish the collection, which was continued by Eleanor Mahoney (also a VISTA volunteer) until this book was built and eventually published some six years after Alderman’s first interview. It consists of three main sections: background on fire lookouts and fire suppression efforts in the US and in Appalachia, including the Depression and the CCC; information on each of the twelve towers in Pocahontas County; and best and finally, twelve interviews with retired towermen and one towerwoman, and their family members.

I think this slim book would serve as a good introduction to the idea of lookout towers; I didn’t need that introduction, but found it fascinating as a look at one small region’s relationship to the system. In comparison to the Gila out west (an example I know pretty well), this story involves considerably more emphasis on the Depression and the CCC, and tower use ended precipitously and much earlier in these parts. It was interesting to see the lookouts’ opinions of what came after (smoke spotting via aircraft! which was shortlived) – most were not impressed. And it was interesting to see a small community’s impression of the lookout system in general. As part of a larger network of forestry and roads/infrastructure operations, the lookout towers provided critically needed employment and developed a relationship with the forests, and an understanding of fire prevention a la Smokey the Bear. I did find it interesting that Above the Smoke didn’t deal with the idea that fire is both natural and necessary for healthy forests – a relatively recent idea in the officialdom of forestry (etc.), but important to Fire Season, for example.

I loved learning about a forgotten chunk of old growth: “The 140-acre tract of virgin red spruce forest located near the tower was named the Gaudineer Scenic Area. This tract was never logged because of discrepancies between competing land surveys – this tiny slice of old growth forest survived because it wasn’t on any company’s map!” (I like to think that there may have been some intention in this ‘error’.) And mention of the Thorny Mountain tower was noted – “Hopefully, one day, Thorny Mountain will reopen to the public.” Well, it has, although it’s awfully hard to book. I hope to snag a couple of nights there myself next year.

This book is short and modest in its scope. The interviews themselves remain faithfully in the vernacular, which I enjoyed. They provide a glimpse of life in a particular time and place, and I’m super grateful to the folks who collected these memories for us all. Thanks for the loan, DB.


Rating: 7 cans of peaches.

A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Having loved Yuri Herrera’s trilogy of novellas, I was excited to learn he had a new book out this year, his first nonfiction, and again translated by the outstanding Lisa Dillman. A Silent Fury is a slim history of a 100-years-ago tragedy in Herrera’s hometown of Pachuca, Hidalgo, in central Mexico. It is minimalist because records are minimal, but it is lyrical and powerful in its minimalism, and a righteous fury does shine through it. I’m ready to follow Herrera (and Dillman) anywhere.

The El Bordo mine, owned by a subsidiary of the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company, caught fire on March 10, 1920. Within hours, the company estimated that “no more than ten” men remained inside, and that they were certainly dead; they ordered all three mine shafts sealed. Six days later, when the mines was reopened, seven men came out alive. Some eighty-seven were dead.

The story is full of problems, horrors, holes. How did the fire start? When did the fire start? What made the company so sure there were no survivors (when they would turn out to be so horrifically wrong)? How many died because of their decision to seal the shafts? What responsibility does the company bear? (The appointed investigation would go out of its way to swear up and down that the company was blameless.) There exist almost no documents bearing the voices of mine workers, survivors of the fire, or families of those lost. Herrera pieces together what he can from a case file and a few news stories.

But there are also oral accounts, given by miners and their families, and it was through these that I learned about the fire: there are at least two crónicas, one by Félix Castillo, the other by José Luis Islas; and a novel by Rodolfo Benavides. All were written years afterwards.

This book, like those accounts, refuses the judicial truth that reduces this history to a file in the archive. But none of these words are mine.

Instead, Herrera writes, he reconstructs events using the accounts available, choosing the most credible version where there are several, and pointing out contradictions and omissions. “Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.” For me, then, this book is in part a commentary on what history is. There is certainly commentary; it is not literally true that none of these words are Herrera’s. Of the surviving seven miners who came out of the sealed shaft after six days, the company’s doctor and local officials agreed

that the miners were “in a perfect state of health and had no internal or external injuries,” save for the fact that a few were in “an advanced state of starvation.” They really said that: in a perfect state of health but starving to death. Rarely has a boss expressed so honestly what, in his opinion, the perfect worker is like.

We hear Herrera’s quiet (but not silent) anger again when he recounts the struggles of the family members of the dead miners, in a section titled “The Women’s Fire.” Wives, common-law wives, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers were asked to prove their relationships to the deceased, in order to qualify for compensation. “Every single one of the qualified witnesses called in to vouch for the truthfulness of their testimony was male.” This kind of simple sentence communicates a great deal of emotion.

Silence is a recurrent thread in this story. The title occurs verbatim in just one moment: in a photograph of the seven survivors, Herrera tells us that “they don’t look like they just escaped from hell… with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

I say again: they sealed the mine shafts on nearly one hundred men, for six days.

This book is deeply moving in its brevity, with a clear grasp of the power of white spaces, what is left unsaid – silence. Herrera is the right writer to probe this story again. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking.


Rating: 8 signatures.

movie: Frequency (2000)

Another firefighter flick. (I can’t remember where I got this list.)

As the movie opens, Dennis Quaid is a hunky firefighter, Frank, in 1960s Queens. He has a good marriage with Julia, and a six-year-old son, John. Flash-forward some 30 years, and John (Jim Caviezel) has grown up to be a cop. He’s close to his mother. They both mourn his long-dead father.

Until the return of the rare (especially in NYC) aurora borealis, which shows up in both 1969 and 1999, coinciding with adult John’s discovery of his father’s old HAM radio. In a sci-fi twist, this allows Frank and adult John to talk to each other across the years. (There is mention of string theory and multiple dimensions to lend this mystery a touch of possibility.) It takes a bit of convincing, especially for Frank, to believe what’s happening, but the play-by-play John is able to give of the 1969 World Series (the Amazing Mets) clinches it. (That World Series will continue to signify throughout the movie.) You can guess what comes next: John is able to warn his father about the warehouse fire in which the latter dies. Now he doesn’t die. Hooray! Except… cue the butterfly effect.

Frank’s survival gives John a whole new set of memories in which his father was there for his adolescence and young adulthood. He’s kept the other memories, too: “I remember both. At the same time. It’s like waking up from a dream and you’re not sure what’s real. I remember you being here, but I also remember when you weren’t.” And now, of course, things start changing in John’s present. His girlfriend doesn’t know him. His mother is not at the phone number he has for her. John the homicide detective gets a new case that matches an old case, and the news just keeps getting worse. He and Frank, across the years and via nightly talks on the HAM radio, undertake to catch a serial killer, but as Frank points out, he’s a firefighter, not a cop. It’s possible that whatever they try will make things worse.

This movie is kind of sappy, but I quite loved it. Seeing the father and the son be open and emotional with each other was darling, actually, even if a bit cheesy. Frequency‘s plot is not unfamiliar (think elements of Back to the Future, Sixth Sense, Ghost, It’s a Wonderful Life), and it uses some fairly transparent tools to manipulate my emotions, but I’m here for it: with a little willing suspension of disbelief, the tension was convincing, and the plot twists intriguing. There’s a bad guy, and there are a couple of clear good guys, and enough disturbance to put them in danger along the way. Most importantly, there are compelling relationships, and maybe that’s key to my enjoyment here. I found a user review on IMDB that says it perfectly: “There have certainly been better action/suspense/serial killer movies (the action scenes weren’t amazing, the story has some holes, and I thought the ending was a little cheesy), but the heart of the film is the relationship between Frank and John. I bought into that relationship fully, and that’s why I liked this film as much as I did.” Well put, UnclePaul.

Solidly worth the time. Also Dennis Quaid is hunky.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

movie: Hellfighters (1968)

Well this was a fairly silly but also awesome film. Extra points for vintage Houston footage, and a most interesting look at how they (used to) put out oil well fires. A little family drama and a bunch of feel-good, handshakin’ male friendship make for an all around warm-and-fuzzy (although seriously dated) John Wayne movie about firefighting and love.

IMDB calls this “disaster/action/adventure,” but it’s at least as much soap opera as it is any of that. Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is the best in the world at what he does: puts out oil well fires, “around the clock, around the world,” as says the slogan of The Buckman Company. He split with his ex-wife Madelyn because she can’t take the stress of his highly dangerous work, but they still love each other. When Chance is badly injured on the job, his assistant Greg fetches his daughter Tish to visit him in the hospital (against Chance’s wishes). Lickety-split, Greg and Tish are married, and the new generation gets their own chance (no pun intended) to navigate matrimony against a fiery backdrop. The final action takes place at a five-well fire in Venezuela, choppers chopping and bullets whining overhead, as both Tish and Madelyn show up to spectate.

I’d like to give some credit for these women being treated less as delicate flowers in need of protecting than I’d expected from 1968. It’s not modern, but it’s better than I’d have thought. Also, these people have phones in their cars and on airplanes! I understand 1968 less well than I thought I did, all-around.

It’s silly – I wonder how seriously the filmmakers took themselves – but pretty fun, too. The brawl between the Americans and some Australian firefighters in a gambling parlor in Malaya was fine slapstick. It’s got a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I fell asleep once. But I had good fun with it, in the end. Keep your expectations low and have a good time.


Rating: 7 delays with the nitro.

author interview: Fernanda Santos

photo: Nick Oza

photo: Nick Oza

Fernanda Santos covers Arizona and New Mexico as the Phoenix bureau chief for the New York Times. Her experience as a journalist is broad, crossing two continents, several languages and a range of subjects. Her first book, The Fire Line (Flatiron Books), is about the deadly 2013 Yarnell Hill, Ariz., wildfire that killed 19 members of the firefighting team the Granite Mountain Hotshots. My review is here.

How was writing this book different from newspaper work?

I wanted to write a book because I couldn’t answer the questions that I wanted answered in newspaper stories. I knew that somebody would write about this fire, and I would have tortured myself for the rest of my life for not having had the courage to write it. I called a colleague in New York, and he said, look at every chapter as a story. Can you write a 4,000-, 5,000-word story? And I said yes, I can write that. He said they just all have to connect in the end. And it seemed so simple.

On one hand, it was that simple. But on the other hand, it’s very different than writing a newspaper story. I had complete control over it. In newspapers, the editors get hold of your text and shape it, or send it back to you and ask for more of this or that, because they want to drive a specific point. With the book, I kept waiting for the moment when the editors would get my chapters and start telling me where to go and what to do next, and it never came. When I was halfway through, I sent it to Colin Dickerman, my editor at Flatiron. I didn’t even know if I’d written something that resembled a book. And he said, there’s a lot of great material here, great reporting, but it’s a little confusing. Why don’t you do an outline? And I thought, oh! I guess that would help! With the outline, everything was easier. I set deadlines for each chapter. I only had a certain amount of book leave, and I didn’t want to jeopardize the job that I really love. So I assigned myself these stories, like my friend told me, and pursued the deadlines as if an editor was there to enforce them. And all of a sudden it flowed, just naturally evolved from one chapter to the next. A lot of the skills I used were developed over those years writing newspaper stories.

How did you gain access to these men’s families, and their trust?

I approached it very differently than I would if I were to just write a story about the deaths. I was not looking for a quote, or a quick couple of lines to throw in a story to define a character. I really wanted to understand who these men were, and I figured the best way to do that was if I got to meet their families. I had a friend in common with the wife of Andrew Ashcraft. I asked this friend to reach out to her, and we met. Then she referred me to her mother-in-law, who was close to another mother, who was close to another family, and the word started to get around. I guess they liked me. They said I had a lot of patience, and I was very interested in learning their stories.

I wrote letters to other families. I explained what the book was about, why I wanted to talk to them, and I said that although I had their addresses, I had not gone knocking on their doors because I didn’t want to add to their anguish. I wanted to leave them in control. I wanted them to reach out to me, and say if, when and where. And before I realized it, I had met everybody.

I also went to the fire academy in Prescott, where a lot of the Hotshots trained, and some of them taught; one of them, Eric Marsh, helped found the academy. I did the basic training, and then another course, and I’m actually going back to a third. I wanted to understand the world they inhabited, because wildland firefighting is a very small world, very tight. Once I went through the academy I could understand better what former members of the crew and families of the men had told me.

fire lineI love that you explore so many facets of this story: firefighting techniques, the history of fire management in the United States, the science of weather forecasting.

I realized early on I had to explain three things. Readers had to understand what wildland fire is, what it is like to fight a wildfire. They had to understand the very specific conditions of the vegetation in that part of the state, which obviously connects to the bigger issues of the drying of the west, climate change, the warming of the planet. And they needed to understand the characteristics of the storm that hit the fire, that hooked the flames and turned them around on the men. So I spent a lot of time in the National Weather Service office here in Phoenix, and the office in Flagstaff. I hung out with meteorologists, asking questions. They referred me to some texts. And I had two very thick fire policy books that I read, which were very helpful. I met several times with the author of those books, Stephen Pyne. In fact, he read my manuscript to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself.

It was in some ways a relief, when the emotional side of things became hard to deal with–you know, spending six hours with a widow, talking about a husband and a life that in many ways resemble my own. These guys were younger than my husband, but we like to do a lot of the same things these guys liked to do with their wives; we have a child, a lot of them had kids–so you understand the broad outlines of a life at home. Emotionally, that is very hard. There were times that I really looked forward to sitting down with a meteorologist and talking about science. It gave me a break, and recharged me so I could go back and sit down with another family for hours and talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. My husband says that I report with my heart first, which is why sometimes I come home a total wreck. I hope that’s what comes through.

Was it easy to return to your work for the Times?

It was not easy. I went from an environment where I was in complete control, and I took the story as far as I wanted to take it, to an environment where I have limits to the stories I write, the amount of time I can spend, even the way I write them. I remember telling my editor after one frustrating story, how is that I can write a book and I can’t write a story? And he said you can write both, but you can’t write a story as if you are writing a book.

I miss my book. It’s very weird, but I miss the intimate connection that I had with that story.

This was very rewarding, then.

It’s interesting. I’m from Brazil. I came here as an adult, I’d never written a story in English, I went to graduate school, I’ve been at the Times 10 years, and now I’ve written a book about wildfires. A very American story, in some ways. It was such an empowering experience for me, as a person. We know all the conventions, the boxes people try to fit us into. You’re a woman, you’re an immigrant, you’re a Latina; therefore you’re expected to know about immigrants, Latinos, parenting. Not about firefighters, a real man’s world. Because English is not my first language, how dare I write a book? Those were the things in my head. What are you thinking? Why did you get yourself into this? I had all these battles with myself, and I obviously overcame them, because I wrote the book. To me, that was such a priceless experience. My daughter is six, and I’ve been talking to her about what people say you can and can’t do, what girls can’t do. And in Latin culture we’re very respectful to authority. So I’m telling her, sometimes you have to break the rules. Sometimes you have to try something that people think you’re never going to be able to do, so you can prove to them that you can. It really taught me a lot about how far I can go.


This interview originally ran in the May 10, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting by Fernanda Santos

A journalist’s in-depth accounting of the tragic loss of 19 firefighters in an Arizona fire in 2013 gives equal due to detail and emotion.

fire line

On June 30, 2013, 19 firefighters died while fighting an Arizona blaze named the Yarnell Hill Fire. Fernanda Santos, Phoenix bureau chief for the New York Times, explores those 19 lives and the period surrounding their deaths in The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting. She relates this affecting story with respect, momentum and surprising suspense, considering the outcome is known from the beginning.

Santos’s style is traditionally reportorial and, after a brief prologue, chronological. Unlike the expansive, philosophical approach Norman Maclean takes in his acclaimed Young Men and Fire, about a 1949 firefighting disaster in Montana, The Fire Line is straightforwardly written. Despite her apparent closeness to the surviving families and her immersion in her research–among other exercises, she undergoes some wilderness firefighter training–Santos sticks to a journalistic narrative and does not place herself in the story. She describes the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their work: physically hard, underpaid, dirty, but also hard-won, honorable, exciting and close to nature. She introduces the young men succinctly but with touching fine points: one grew up learning about firefighting at his grandfather’s knee, one got teased for his “big calculator wristwatch,” another carried a copy of Goodnight Moon to read to his daughters over the phone when he was away fighting fires. Seven of the Hotshots were new hires, and three of them had babies on the way. Among the team of 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots, they were raising 13 children. Intimate identification with these men is central to the emotional impact of the book, and Santos builds that closeness naturally as she characterizes them.

As the Hotshots’ 2013 fire season unfolds, Santos continues to acquaint her reader with these men, communities and fires. Along the way, she neatly braids in various areas of research: the science of weather and forecasting, fire management history, the techniques of wilderness firefighting, the precise work of incident meteorologists, who assess local weather conditions. According to her author’s note, Santos adheres strictly to fact: feelings, thoughts and memories attributed to her characters come directly from her prodigious research. The Yarnell Hill Fire itself was underestimated in its strength and complexity; The Fire Line takes its time charting movements and decisions, not overtly concerned with assigning blame, but raising certain questions.

Santos brings immediacy and familiarity to a larger-than-life disaster with quiet admiration and loyalty to truth. By the time the Granite Mountain Hotshots, men now familiar to the reader, go missing, the tragedy of these losses is deeply felt.


This review originally ran in the April 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 texts.

guest review: Fire Season by Philips Connors, from Tassava

reviewYou will recall from way back my original post about this very fine book, and my dad’s review of same. Now I have another to add to the accolades.


fireFrom his website, I’d like to share with you my buddy Christopher Tassava’s review (even with the undeserved praise in that opening line).

My ridiculously well-read friend Julia recommended that I read Fire Season, a book-length essay by Philip Connors on his work as a fire-tower lookout in the mountain forests of New Mexico. Connors’ writing is amazing, evoking both the wildness of his setting (which I now have a deep desire to see firsthand) and the civilized nature of his work, which aims, at its base, to preserve what man values in nature. I loved lines like

Time spent being a lookout isn’t spent at all. Every day in a lookout is a day not subtracted from the sum of one’s life.

which seems as true for my favorite outdoor activity (riding bikes!) as it does for being a lookout.

Connors’ skills at crafting prose are matched by his skills at explaining the American perspectives on fire and on wilderness. Much of the book concerns how the U.S. Forest Service – Connors’ employer – has understood the primordial force of wildfire, and how it has reacted to it. The historical material is fascinating on its own (someone seriously proposed clear cutting the Rockies to prevent fires!) and as context for Connors’ own stints in the watchtower. Not all of the fires he spots garner a response from the Forest Service: some are left to burn acres and miles of forest, contributing to the endless natural cycle of burning and growth.

But Connors also adds his voice to the conversation about what wilderness is, and what it’s for. He comes down in favor of preserving wilderness for its own sake: not as a place for humans to “recharge” but as a place apart from humans and, I thought by the end of the book, better than we are.

Glad you loved it, Tassava! Next up is Dirt Work, which I believe he is also loving. Stay tuned.

two striking paragraphs from Young Men and Fire

A cloudburst was already waiting to challenge us at the top of the ridge. From the bottom of Meriwether Canyon we could both see and hear it making preparations for a joust with us. As we tried not to fall backwards to where we started in the canyon, we could hear the storm rumble and paw the ground. When we neared the top, it tried to beat us back by splintering shafts of lightning on gigantic rocks. There was a lone tree near the top, only one, and in case we had any foolish ideas of taking refuge under it a bolt of lightning took aim and split it apart; it went down as if it had been hit by a battle-ax. Trying to reach the rocks, we were held motionless and vertical in our tracks by the wind. Only when the wind lessened for a moment could we move – then we fell forward. With the lessening of the wind the rain became cold and even heavier and forced us to retreat from the battlefield on top. The rain fell on us like a fortified wall falling. By the time we reached the bottom of Meriwether, we were shivering and demoralized and my brother-in-law probably already had pneumonia.

All this was like a demonstration arranged to let us know that Mann Gulch had power over earth, air, and water, as well as fire. As the wind continued to lessen, the rain increased and fell straight down. It was solid now everywhere. It knocked out the motor in our borrowed boat, and we couldn’t get it started again; after a while we didn’t try anymore, and it took several hours to pole and paddle our way back to Hilger Landing. My brother-in-law was seriously sick before we got there; he would never go back to Mann Gulch. So for some time Mann Gulch was mine alone, if I wanted it, and for some time I left it to the elements. I turned to the archives because I knew they would be dry and no wind would be there and the air would be the same air the stacks had been built around and nothing but a book or two had been moved since. The signs would demand “Silence” and even the silence would be musty, and for a time anything musty had an appeal.


I am seriously tempted to leave this passage to stand alone. Below I will make a few notes toward a closer reading of it; but feel free to skip my little words and reread Maclean and go on with your day.


Or, if you want my thoughts:

Here Maclean relates his first attempt to visit Mann Gulch, scene of the decades-old tragedy he wants to write a book 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 universe,” reluctant to give up its secrets regarding these events. This first visit to the spot itself clearly informs his feeling of the universe’s truculence. Perhaps, he thinks, the archives will be more revealing. (As it turns out, they weren’t, especially.)

These paragraphs are both easy to read, and dense with description. You can feel the weather beating through your computer screen, can’t you? Look at the action verbs, the militarism, the agency attributed to the inanimate storm. It is waiting to challenge; preparing to joust; it rumbles and paws the ground. It tries to beat us back; it takes aim and disabuses us of foolish ideas. The top of the gulch is a battlefield; rain was like a fortified wall falling.

There is comedy: when the wind stopped we were able to move again – we fell forward. (Can you see the slapstick even in this dramatic moment? Does it make you smile?)

All of this was a demonstration – and note Maclean’s reference to the concept behind the title of this book, the elemental forces of earth, air, water, fire (and young men).

In this round of battle, Maclean concedes that the Gulch has won; he retreats to the archives, where the librarians among us are amused and charmed by the air the stacks had been built around, and the appeal of mustiness after such a run-in with the wild outdoors.


I again encourage you to read this amazing book.

notes on Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

young men and fireI 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 scrap of blank paper as a bookmark because I can takes notes on it. Often these are words I’m unfamiliar with, with page numbers, so I can look them up and reread them in their context; quotations with page numbers; or notes of concepts I want to include in a review. Some books fill a quarter-page piece of scrap paper with notes; some have 2-3 notes; a fair minority of the time, I can get all the way through a book with no notes at all and write a review from memory.

Young Men and Fire filled 3 quarter-page scraps of paper and part of a 4th, and I was writing very small. So I wanted to share these notes here. I’ve expanded them slightly to explain to you what I was noting; but still they are basically marginalia. [My page numbers refer to the 1992 hardback from the University of Chicago Press that I got from my local library.] I also left off a few that turned out to be less interesting avenues of pursuit, or that turned out to be personal.

  • author photo: this V.C. Wald 1981 portrait of Maclean in a boat, looking down, is evocative for me and I love it. (see bottom of post)
  • Ehrlich & Dillard blurbs: on the back of the book (among others). Gretel Ehrlich is one of those I had never heard of til I had, and now I see her everywhere. Dillard is one I’ve heard lots about, and it’s finally time for me to read her.
  • like The Perfect Storm: science, weather, geography – actually like it in subject too
  • takes his reader in hand to guide her on this together-journey
  • “left a world that is still burned out.” 86
  • “a mystery of the universe is how it has managed to survive with so much volunteer help.” 112 (having worked with volunteers, and been a volunteer myself, I found this quite apt and funny.)
  • great comments on human nature 114-15. “…most people think they can be of help, and some even seem born to rescue others, as poets think they are.”
  • stations of the cross (a concept that I had to look up: I am unapologetic about being an atheist, but regret a little how uneducated I am in the religions that I don’t believe in)
  • Custer: turns out to be a subject of sort of secondary obsession for Maclean. apparently The Norman Maclean Reader includes his unpublished notes on Custer that were headed for being their own book. I am looking into this.
  • poem 201: I had to look up a poem that was quoted without attribution; it turned out to be “In Flanders Fields” by Colonel John McCrae.
  • “I added a final truism for myself, ‘True poems are hard to find.'” 202
  • “Beer doesn’t seem to do much to remove dehydration, but it makes it easier to admit error.” … “We were too tired to sit down in the shade, if there was any, so we put the plastic bag with the rest of the beer between us on the hot hood of the engine. We figured, since beer couldn’t take away dehydration, we might as well drink it warm.” 209. What I can say, I guess I collect literary quotations about beer.
  • sewing machines 214. The scene described is one in which the smokejumpers play a game of volleyball, watched by visitors from The General Public, who are surprised the smokejumpers are “not as big as the Minnesota Vikings,” and after the game is over, “to the ever-increasing surprise of the visitors, would sit in front of sewing machines and peacefully mend their parachutes. They were very skillful with their sewing machines and damn well better have been, since their lives hung on their parachutes.” This one is for my mother, who not only collects sewing machines but also uses them. She also collects instances of the intersection of manliness and sewing machines – not as rare as you might think, it turns out. (She still has not gotten Husband onto one.)
  • this story in Fire Season? and Jumping Fire? note to self to go and check on the Mann Gulch’s appearance(s) in the two books; I’m sure it must be there…
  • story 214-15: a brief anecdote I appreciated, told by Hal Samsel
  • “…a storyteller should never look at a day as lost if he has learned something about how to tell stories, especially about how to make them shorter.” (which is a lesson Maclean learns from Hal, above.) 215
  • Ancient Age 216: a brand of bourbon that I confess I had to look up (I like Knob Creek myself, if you’re taking notes)
  • I begin to see clearly that I favor those authors who booze. Hemingway, Abbey, Burke, and Maclean, I’m looking at you.
  • math 229-30 and on… another note for my mother, who is a math person (geometry particularly) and might appreciate this discussion of math, its challenges, and its value, not to mention the math itself, complete with charts and graphs, that helps explain the Mann Gulch fire
  • Black Larry: the real-life character in Fire Season who recommended I read this book. make a note to send him a note.
  • silviculture 247: from the US Forest Service: “Silviculture is the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health and quality of forests and woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of landowners and society on a sustainable basis.” Maclean uses it in a way that suggests an earlier meaning (at least to him), of the science of controlling forests to meet the needs of loggers, which is not really the same thing as the above definition.
  • anemometer 248: An instrument for measuring the speed of the wind, or of any current of gas.
  • Phil Connors – management – Rothermel – 256: another note to check Fire Season for reference to a man named Rothermel who helped rework the Forest Service’s policies on managing fires rather than just always fighting them. again, I’m sure it’s in there.
  • (back to The Perfect Storm) as I remember it, Junger never addresses much his own strengths or weaknesses with the technical aspect of his research, that is, the science. Maclean does; he pokes fun at his limits with math. This brings in his own personality & amuses me. Also Junger never becomes a character until his final comments(?), whereas Maclean is a major character, necessarily, throughout.
  • “All of us have the privilege to choose what we wish to visualize as the edge of reality. Either tier of crosses allows us to picture the dead as dying with their boots on. On some of the bodies all but the boots were burned off. If you have lived a life that has thrown you in contact many times with nature, you have already discovered that sometimes you can deal with nature only by allowing it to push back what until now you and others thought were its edges.” 277
  • elements – title: I discussed this in my book review, how Maclean adds “young men” to our list of the elements, normally four: earth, air, fire, and water. thus the title of the book.

As you can see, this book inspired many ruminations in me, some still unfinished.

Many thanks to Veronica Wald for sharing this on her blog! It’s worth clicking the link above for the story of the iconic photo.
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