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.

book beginnings on Friday: Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

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.

young men and fire

Following an informative and lovely Publisher’s Note, which tells us that this is a posthumous publication of an unfinished (but largely formed) work, Norman Maclean begins his book Young Men and Fire with a story about the beginning of his involvement with the Mann Gulch Fire.

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.

To think that while the fire was still burning, in 1949, Maclean knew he’d be tied to it forever – though he didn’t begin this book til 1976, and it was unfinished at his death in 1990 – is profound in itself.

I think I am a serious Maclean fan. Stay tuned.

more on Maclean from Liz

Nature, unfortunately for the organization of academia, is vexingly interdisciplinary.

Why are the activities aboard the Titanic so fascinating to us that we give no heed to the waters through which we pass, or to that iceberg on the horizon?

Last week I posted a review of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and other stories. My coworker Liz, who more than once has directed us to some great reads, immediately found and forwarded a 1989 Past President’s Address to the Western Literature Association by a Glen A. Love. Her comment was: “After reading your review I went looking for Maclean biography and found this, I know you dislike the form but I was compelled to send it along anyway.” She’s referring to my dislike of essay collections – I know, it’s terrible, right? but I can’t get excited about collections of essays. A single essay, however, for no good reason, I am game for.

This one turned out to be very interesting. (Liz wins again.) It begins:

Describing the early rejection of the manuscript for his widely admired book A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean recalls in his acknowledgments the cool dismissal from one New York publisher: “These stories have trees in them.”

And then it largely abandons Maclean; but never fear. It’s a great argument for the failure of Literature to address ecology; it’s a polemic, and sadly no less relevant and (to my inexpert eye) no less correct in its criticisms today, despite being 24 years old. I thrilled to read about great nature writers whom I’ve loved, and also those I haven’t yet discovered (and note the reference to Gretel Ehrlich, of whom I’d never heard until recently). She is mentioned as one of those writers who “seem to slough off their New York or L.A. skins when they confront western landscapes.” If that doesn’t remind you of Phil Connors, you haven’t been paying attention. Maclean inhabits this article mostly in that phrase, quoting a rejecting publisher: “These stories have trees in them.” Love argues that this is one of the tragedies of Maclean’s kind, and a chief failure of the literary establishment: that to write about trees will get you derisively branded with “the contemptuous epithet nature-lover.”

I muse, as I read this article, about some books I’ve read that were partly nature writings, but only as a framework through which to dissect the human condition: Mountains of Light was lovely, and awed by Yosemite, but the author was really there to exorcise the particular demon of his wife’s death; and Almost Somewhere was even more overtly a drama of young women coming of age, and the unfortunate cattiness that often accompanies them, set against the John Muir Trail. This is one of Love’s points, too: that we (as a society, not only as writers & critics) continue to fail to consider nature, or the earth, in its own right, and instead keep considering its role in human experience.

I think Phil Connors and especially Derrick Jensen would agree with Love’s assessments. So, I’m feeling more of that synchronicity that I’ve written of before: I’ve found another kindred spirit, as Anne of Green Gables might say.

A River Runs Through It, and other stories by Norman Maclean

riverNorman Maclean is a poet and a genius. Annie Proulx’s foreword, and Macleans’ own acknowledgements, had me spellbound from the first moments; even before I began the first of three stories, I had to put the book down and meditate on what I’d read. Consider the final lines of the acknowledgements:

This, then, in summary, is a collection of Western stories with trees in them for children, experts, scholars, wives of scholars, and scholars who are poets. I hope there are others also who don’t mind trees.

This is Maclean’s first book, published when he was already an old man. It includes three pieces I have a little trouble categorizing. Short stories? Well, they’re not particularly short, not consistently: the first one is over 100 pages and therefore more properly a novella; the second is 20 pages; the third, 90. They are also nonfiction, which makes calling them short stories or novellas also problematic. Take that as you will. They are very fine, whatever they are.

I am going to write this review much like I did yesterday’s, heavy on the quotations because this writer is such a Writer.

“A River Runs Through It,” the title story and the one best critically received, begins:

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

We meet a young Norman and his brother Paul, briefly as boys to establish their personalities and their relationship with fishing (every bit as reverent as those opening lines suggest), and then we delve into their lives in their early thirties. They fish together. Paul is a gifted fly fisherman. They have a noncommunicative (stereotypically male) relationship, but they worship together at the river, hone their craft, share special moments; their world is intruded upon by the unpleasantness of Norman’s brother-in-law, who is (gasp) a bait fisherman. Paul also likes to fight, and he comes to a young and violent end. All these years later, the Maclean who writes this story might be seen as exorcising a youthful trauma; lucky for us it is as thoughtful, wise, delicate, and beautiful as it is.

…I could never be talked into believing that all a fish knows is hunger and fear. I have tried to feel nothing but hunger and fear and don’t see how a fish could ever grow to six inches if that were all he ever felt. In fact, I go so far sometimes as to imagine that a fish thinks pretty thoughts.

Again I see Derrick Jensen here: fish are people, too.

What a beautiful world it was once. At least a river of it was. And it was almost mine and my family’s, and just a few others’ who wouldn’t steal beer. You could leave beer to cool in the river, and it would be so cold when you got back it wouldn’t foam much. It would be a beer made in the next town if the town were ten thousand or over. So it was either Kessler Beer made in Helena or Highlander Beer made in Missoula that was left to cool in the Blackfoot River. What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.

If you don’t see Hemingway’s legacy there, I don’t know what I can say to help you. Maclean was born just three years after Papa, but Hemingway had been dead over a decade when this, Maclean’s first book, was published, so at least in literary terms they are a generation apart. No one can write prayerfully about fishing and the beauty of a trout stream without channeling that man.

I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.

Again, talk about prayerful – a word he uses several times, actually, and appropriately. I won’t quote the famous final line of this story for you. Go find it out for yourself. I cannot argue with the accepted notion that “A River Runs Through It” is Maclean’s masterpiece.

Next is “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim'”, a story of Maclean’s work as a young man on a logging camp, during the summers while he’s not in school becoming an academic. The man who signs his letters as in the story’s title is a mystery, and the fact that Maclean leaves him unexplained felt a little strange but, of course, very real. It’s an entertaining and rather disturbing little tale, worth the time, but nothing compared to River.

And then there is “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” almost as long as the first story and less well received critically, but in my opinion very striking. It focuses on just a few weeks during the time Maclean spent working for the Forest Service, yes, in 1919, when the world was a little different place:

We were fairly representative of early Forest Service crews as I came to know them – maybe not even that good, because the war had ended less than a year before and many of the best men had not yet returned to the woods, and the earth was still pretty much in the care of the old with corrugated skin and tiny steps and young punks looking for a fight and gassed Canadians and anonymous lookouts who had to be there but can’t be remembered. Not one had ever seen the inside or the outside of a school of forestry. But, as Bill said, we were a pretty good crew and we did what we had to do and loved the woods without thinking we owned them, and each of us liked to do at least one thing especially well – liked to swing a jackhammer and feel the earth overpowered by dynamite, liked to fight, liked to heal the injuries of horses, liked to handle groceries and tools and tie knots. And nearly all of us liked to work. When you think about it, that’s a lot to say about a bunch of men.

The first line introduces our narrator:

I was young and I thought I was tough and I knew it was beautiful and I was a little bit crazy but hadn’t noticed it yet.

And there is wisdom about nature:

…the mountains of Idaho, poems of geology stretching beyond any boundaries and seemingly even beyond the world.

And work:

The unpacking was just as beautiful – one wet satin back after another without saddle or saddle sore, and not a spot of white wet flesh where hair and hide had rubbed off. Perhaps one has to know something about keeping packs balanced on the backs of animals to think this beautiful, or to notice it at all, but to all those who work come moments of beauty unseen by the rest of the world.

And as a historical moment in time, I found it only a hair’s breadth less impressive than River. I like to read about the Forest Service, and I can’t wait to get into Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, about the Mann Gulch forest fire of 1949, in Montana, where a bunch of young smokejumpers were killed. (My fascination with forest, and fire, holds over from Fire Season, obviously.)

I am reeling from this book. Especially having read A River Runs Through It back-to-back with The Solace of Open Spaces, and with the two set side-by-side (or, top to bottom) in Wyoming and Montana, I feel swept away. Sometimes our reading happens this way, that a set of books come together to effect more than the sum of the parts. So, like Ehrlich’s lesser-known work, I will say that Maclean’s is… wise, compassionate, lyrical, and so important and beautiful in its honoring of a dying version of our world. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 beads of sweat.

Teaser Tuesdays: A River Runs Through It, and other stories by Norman Maclean

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. The idea is to open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. And try not to include spoilers!


It has taken me too long to find Norman Maclean. Those who recommended him were, of course, oh so right; and now I can’t wait to get a hold of Young Men and Fire.

My 25th anniversary edition of A River Runs Through It includes three stories, but the titular one is the bulk of the book. It is from that story that I’ve taken this lovely teaser for you today.

It was so hot that the mirages on the river melted into each other. It was hard to know whether the utterances I had heard were delphic.

Of course I’m a sucker for the classical reference in the use of the word ‘delphic’. And now I will try to bite my tongue and save it for my review; but let me say, this is a beautiful book.

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