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.

guest review: “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky” by Norman Maclean, from Tassava

Tassava is back: earlier this week we heard from him about “A River Runs Through It.” Today, the final story in Maclean’s earth-shaking collection of three.

More Maclean…

Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.

Bill Bell Heads Back Out by R. Williams

Bill Bell Heads Back Out, by R. Williams

He says this story is “shorter than but at least as good as” the title piece, “A River Runs Through It,” which sort of blows my mind – tell us more, Tassava!! Maybe I should go back for a reread, because I remember liking the other two stories but feeling that the longer one was superior. Also, I’m curious to hear what didn’t work for you about “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim,'” which I remember thinking well of – perhaps even over this one! – for its detailed descriptions of the logging lifestyle and the conflict with Jim. I’d like to better understand. And I can’t wait to hear about still more Maclean to come!

musings on “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean, from Tassava

In reading and rereading some pieces by and about Maclean recently, I was struck by the certainty that my buddy Tassava would love him. He told me he’d read none, so I set out to remedy that. Unsurprisingly, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories was a big hit.

Rivers Run through It

At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.

He follows with some photos that reflect his personal connection to Maclean’s writing.

Henry's Fork in Island Park, ID (March 2014), photo by Tassava

Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID (March 2014), photo by Tassava

Read the rest here.

Thanks, Tassava. I hope you love Young Men and Fire as much as I did, too!

Norman Maclean (American Author Series), edited by Ron McFarland and Hugh Nichols

norman macleanI believe Norman Maclean is the finest writer I know of. This book helped me to recall & develop that idea. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and highly recommended, but with one qualification: I advice any 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 appreciation has been developed by enjoying them.

Norman Maclean includes 10 short pieces by Maclean himself (essays, and texts of talks given), two “interviews” (one really a profile piece), and 7 critical essays about his work. Maclean is as good as ever. As I said when I read The Norman Maclean Reader, “Retrievers Good and Bad” is still a delight. I liked his discussions of his own work, which a person might find slightly self-congratulatory if we weren’t talking about A River Runs Through It, a story entirely deserving of all praise. His comments about college students – how they seem to want to be coddled, but really need their professors to be tough with them – sound absolutely contemporary today. His favorite phrases begin to echo in refrain as I read (& sometimes reread) his collected works; but they do not lessen by repetition. As driven home in some of the writings about his writing, Maclean’s art was meticulous on every level, including (as he points out himself) in the rhythms of his language. “Teaching and Storytelling” is a real gem; I loved the extended metaphor coming from his youth, “playing games with garbage cans, although in the morning they have to be fished out of the creek.”

And then I got to the section of “essays in appreciation and criticism,” and confess I sighed a moment, because Maclean’s voice would now be silent and others would speak; but the first essay was by Wallace Stegner, and if someone has to follow Maclean it should be Stegner. Actually, that is to skip over Pete Dexter’s preceding essay, “The Old Man and the River,” which is the one I mentioned, listed under interviews but really more of a personal profile piece, and is lovely: it captures the feeling of admiration that I feel in a tone of some humor, and evokes Maclean perhaps more even than his own voice does. This is Maclean the man, which is often a little less visible when Maclean the writer is present, even though so much of his writing is autobiographical.

Some of the critical essays approach from the decidedly academic side, and these were sometimes a little dry and effortful reading, but they also enlightened me and expanded my appreciation. Both of these points are true, for example, of Harold P. Simonson’s essay “Norman Maclean’s Big Two-Hearted River”, which examines A River Runs Through It in theological terms – a very rational lens, and one invited by Maclean, but not one I was well-prepared for, so I had a lot to learn.

It occurred to me on this reading of Maclean that one thing that distinguishes him from other extraordinary writers like Hemingway is that he refuses to be cynical. He can be humorous, but not cynical; he retains a sense of wonder and awe that Hemingway, for example, did not always manage to retain. (Contrast the narrator of A River Runs Through It with Jake’s answer to Lady Brett Ashley, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”) I have thought before, in other contexts, that we often confuse an absence of cynicism with a lack of sophistication, but that this is sometimes a mistake. There is much made throughout this lovely collection of the beautiful, the sublime, and of grace. Maclean writes of a “slowness of movement that turned out not to be slowness but the shortest distance between two points, which is one definition of grace.” For me, another definition will be his continuing sense of wonder.

Norman Maclean is a new favorite, and will certainly be one of the best of this year. Again, please take my recommendation with the understanding that you should read his two masterpieces first, before continuing to appreciate him here.

Rating: 10 timeless raindrops.

Teaser Tuesdays: Norman Maclean, edited by Ron McFarland and Hugh Nichols

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Returning to Norman Maclean has been an epiphany, all over again: his writing may well be perfect. I’m not sure I’ve read anyone better.

norman maclean

This edition in the “American Author Series” includes essays by Maclean (some developed from talks he gave), two interviews with him, and essays in appreciation and criticism of his work. There are no sizable excerpts from A River Runs Through It or its accompanying stories, because as the editors rightfully point out, we already have access to those; their goal here (among others) is to bring us Maclean works that are less accessible.

Nevertheless, I had read some of these pieces before – I could not say where – but nevertheless they are so good I am boggled every time I read them.

Today’s teaser comes from “Retrievers Good and Bad”, which is among other things a catalog of duck dogs in Maclean’s family.

The Missouri is one of the main flyways for ducks in America, and when the autumn storms begin in the north, the ducks come whistling out of Canada, hit the Missouri River, follow it to the Mississippi and coast the rest of the way to Louisiana. When they go around those big bends on the upper Missouri, the air is left hurt and shaking, and if you are a duck hunter, the place to be is behind a rock on the cliffside of the bends, because the ducks’ speed on the turns almost drives them into the cliffs and into your bun barrel. That is just where my father and I were.

Of course “the air left hurt and shaking” is an extraordinary phrase, but there is a rhythm to the whole, and an awareness of scope and scale; and then it finishes with family and immediacy. To me, this simple couple of sentences is a fine example of what Maclean can do with words.

better to burn out than fade away?

As you know, I’ve recently begun reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I started with the biographical note (unattributed), and the introduction, which is by Terry Tempest Williams, a friend of Stegner’s. These prepared me well: I began with just a hint of what the story was about, and felt like I got to know the author just a little. I like Williams, so that connection felt good, too. Before beginning to read the novel itself, I was reminded of Norman Maclean. The tone of voice in Williams’s short intro, and in the biographical note, is gentle and loving and matches the tone in which people write about Maclean. And it got me thinking about a very different sort of author.

Ernest Hemingway always thought of himself as a future famous writer, beginning when he was very small; his self-image was one step ahead of his actual place in the world, but he was never mistaken. He designed & intended his identity as the larger-than-life author-man archetype, and then he lived into that legend. (He convinced us to varying degrees, of course, but I don’t think we need argue that he didn’t live the story he’d written for himself.) He then died just shy of his 62nd birthday of a self-inflicted double-barreled shotgun blast to the head while his wife slept a few rooms over. His late years were tormented by mental illness, paranoia, and an increasing and overwhelming distress that he was failing to fulfill his potential. But all his life he fought his demons, and there’s plenty of evidence that suicide was on his mind many decades before he pulled the trigger.

By contrast, Norman Maclean lived to be 87 (and published 2 very important books and a number of essays). Wallace Stegner lived to be 84 (and published 28 books). In their art they both exude a sense of calm, and in late life commanded a quiet, loving respect in their peers and, in death, in their survivors that Hemingway does not. So my question is this. Would Hemingway have chosen for himself a long life, a quiet, respected, accomplished old age, surrounded by contentment? Or would he have joined Kurt Cobain in quoting the Neil Young lyric, that it’s “better to burn out than fade away”?

movie: A River Runs Through It (1992)

rivermovieI was pleased when Husband found this movie for me the other night. I enjoyed the book by Maclean so much, and I had heard good things about the movie. Robert Redford’s involvement speaks well, too.

First of all, this film is very visually pleasing; the scenery is lovely (IMDB says it was shot in Montana and Wyoming – not onsite in Missoula, but convincingly nearby), the fishing scenes are appropriately peaceful, and the actors are attractive. Thank you, Hollywood, for a typical, unrealistic portrayal! Although Paul Maclean in particular was supposed to be a very good-looking young man; and whatever your feelings about Brad Pitt, I don’t think you can argue that his role as Paul is less than gorgeous. (See below.) Also pleasing are the glimpses of 1920’s flapperdom, particularly in the character of Jessie Burns (later Maclean’s wife), who is charmingly represented.

young Brad Pitt

young Brad Pitt

The film opens and closes with Norman Maclean as an old man, fly-fishing, accompanied by a voiceover (by Robert Redford) quoting from the book. This is appropriate, and effective. Otherwise, the film’s connection to the book comes and goes. The Maclean family onscreen is quite faithful to the Maclean family of the novella (although I found the Reverend a little friendlier in the book than in the movie), but the action diverges often. I missed the couple that happen upon Paul’s masterful fishing in the book, but at least the scene is represented in the film. I was perhaps most thrown by the scene in which the Maclean brothers take a daring whitewater trip in a “borrowed” boat; I could feel how disconnected this section was from Maclean’s own writing, and indeed, it felt out of character with the brothers as I knew them from the page. Coming early in the movie as it did, it was even more disjointed for me. When the fishing trips (two of them) with Jessie’s brother take place in the book, Norman and Jessie are already married; in the movie, they’ve just begun dating, and there’s only one scene. It is, however, well represented with both humor and outrage.

As of course is standard in book-to-movie adaptations, we get less in the film than we did on the page. Naturally I missed the parts we lost, because I loved the book so. This is to be expected. Part of what I missed was the immersion (no pun intended) in the world of fly-fishing that Maclean brings so fully to life, in such an interesting manner even to those of us who don’t care much for fishing. The depth of all the characters also naturally loses some development in a 2-hour movie. All things considered, this was an enjoyable movie – for its natural landscapes, peaceful yet tortured tone, and familiarity with the Maclean family of whom I cannot get enough. It doesn’t do the book justice, but no movie could, so I won’t hold much of a grudge for that.

Rating: 6 trout.

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.

The Norman Maclean Reader

macleanAh, Norman Maclean. This is the last of 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 seeking a decent and well-regarded biography of him and have found none, so if you have it, speak up.

This is a collection of Maclean’s work, including excerpts from the longer books I’ve read already, a few previously published articles, and several previously unpublished pieces, including chapters from his book on Custer that Maclean worked on for years and finally gave up (prior to beginning either of his published works). Also included are letters he sent to a few friends and mentees; these might be my favorite part, although that’s a tough competition. The introduction, by editor O. Alan Weltzien, is a little on the academic side, referencing Maclean’s teaching career and his work with Aristotle, Shakespeare, Shelley and Wordsworth, and the concept of tragedy and its place in life and art; but if it required me to slow down and pay special attention, it was worth it.

Maclean too can be quite cerebral and academic – he was an academic by profession, after all – as in his discussion of Freudian philosophy (which “will not run with sex alone”) in the last chapter of the Custer book, called “Shrine to Defeat.” I enjoyed the Custer chapters very much, which are like Young Men and Fire in being contemplative, personal, philosophic studies of historical events. But I think my favorite sections are the more autobiographical, memoir-ish stories: if you can find a copy of the story called Retrievers Good and Bad (originally published in Esquire 88 in October 1977), you’re in for a treat. This is an early attempt to communicate some of Maclean’s feelings about his brother Paul’s death, and the abruptness of it – through dogs. What else could we ask for?

Following the Custer chapters and a selection of shorter works (and excerpts from his published books) come letters from Maclean to:

  • Robert Utley, much younger Custer scholar, to whom Maclean offers advice and mentorship while asking for tidbits on Custer; their relationship evolves until Maclean (still never having published a book), the teacher, poignantly requests help from the student who has now published several. a charming friendship.
  • Marie Borroff, former student of Maclean’s (formally, that is; Utley was correspondent and friend and only informally a “student”) who becomes a highly regarded scholar, poet, teacher herself. this relationship in letters is even more affectionate.
  • Nick Lyons, younger teacher, writer, fisherman, publisher whom Maclean befriends after Lyons wrote a favorable review of A River Runs Through It.
  • Lois Jansson, widow of Bob Jansson, USFS ranger whose work on and after the Mann Gulch fire Maclean highly regarded and treated with respect in Young Men and Fire.

As I said earlier, these letters might have been my favorite part of this book. Of course they reveal, far more than his published writings, an unedited, raw, personal Maclean. I enjoyed that man, who shares the humor, cleverness, playfulness, and philosophies of the edited and published one, but with the added charm of vulnerability, fears, and requests for help from his loved ones. He also shares his personal losses – chiefly that of his beloved wife – in these letters more than anywhere else. I deeply appreciated having access to this new side of an author I’ve come to love recently.

A few more thoughts – on Hemingway – you know I had to go there:

A blurb by Alfred Kazin on the back of this book calls A River Runs Through It “as beautiful as anything in Thoreau or Hemingway.” Now, I confess I am in danger of seeing Hemingway everywhere. I love him; I’ve read a lot of him, repeatedly, as well as several biographies. Maybe it’s a flaw of mine. But I saw Hemingway in these writings, too.

The joke has many variants, some of them dirty and all of them grim, but essentially it is one joke and underneath the many variants is a kindly undertone, as if some joke had been played upon the bluffs of the Little Bighorn for which there should be universal forbearance, on the chance that the joke played there is played some time on all of us. Clearly, our dead are delivered from oblivion when they become a joke on us.

Bear with me; I know that first one is a longish sentence and Hemingway is known for short ones, but you’d be surprised. He knew how to carry on, and in just this fashion: the repetition of that short, simple, but aurally striking word “joke”; the subject matter of death and war handled with a wry, cynical lightness. Likewise the cadence of this section-ending line:

They thought it over and after some of the weariness was gone, Little Wolf and all the young men enlisted and went back to their old job of fighting in the country that had been their home.

More great stuff from Maclean. Recommended, as usual.

Rating: 10 selected letters.

book beginnings on Friday: The Norman Maclean Reader

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


For this book beginning, we are treated to a previously unpublished chapter from Maclean’s abandoned book about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn.

It was in the year – even in the season of year – marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn that Major Edward S. Luce retired as Superintendent of the Custer Battlefield National Monument. He and the Hill have long been closely connected.

Even in those few words, I recognize Maclean and his attention to detail and his interest. As 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 who wrote the introduction) his proximity to the subject caused him to leave this book behind.

I am super-extra-excited to have more Maclean to dig into. Let’s have it.

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