AND A FIRE RAN THROUGH THEM
CRISIS AND COURAGE IN THE GREAT WOODS
Sunday, August 30, 1992 Section: Arts Page: 19
By JOEL NEUBERG
YOUNG MEN AND FIRE
By Norman Maclean
University of Chicago Press, 301 pp., $19.95
ON AUG. 5, 1949, a crew of 15 United States Forest Service Smokejumpers stepped into
the sky above a 60-acre fire in Mann Gulch just east of the Missouri River in a Montana
wilderness area in the Helena National Forest. Within an hour, all but three of these young men (and a Forest Service fire guard who had been fighting the fire) were
dead or fatally burned, the only members in the history of the elite fire-fighting
outfit to die on the fire line.
'Young Men and Fire" is Norman Maclean's memoir, history, scientific analysis (he
calls it a "fire report") and memorial of a fire he visited while it was still burning
and stayed with all his life.
Maclean, author of the immensely popular "A River Runs Through It and Other Stories,"
did not begin writing until he was over 70 and retired from a distinguished career
as a professor of English at the University of Chicago. And then he certainly took
his time. "A River Runs Through It" is less than 250 pages and includes only three stories.
But they are wonderful stories, full of eloquent descriptive detail and human insights
touched with humor, breathing life into the country, characters and relationships of his youth in Montana. That was his fiction work.
Kindling a fire
''Young Men and Fire," Maclean's contribution to non- fiction, is an examination of
the complex events that occurred in one hour of a very hot afternoon on a remote
steep hillside in a Montana forest fire. He worked on the book for 12 years; he had
thought about it for more than 25 years before that. The book was unfinished when Maclean
died in 1990 at the age of 87. His publishers at the University of Chicago Press
have put a good deal of work and thought into its publication, and it was well worth
the work and the thought. There is a graph illustrating, during the first 30 years of their
existence, the very real impact the Smokejumpers had on controlling small fires.
There are anecdotes to fix the Mann Gulch environs in history (from Lewis and Clark
to World War II). There are topographic maps of the Gates of the Mountains wilderness, the
Mann Gulch fire area and wind directions in the gulch on the day of the fire. There
is a short discussion on the history of the pulaski, pre-eminent hand tool of the
forest firefighter. There are photographs and diagrams, charts and mathematical equations
to help the reader understand, as Maclean struggled to understand, exactly what occurred
in that remote time and place.
But what makes this a great book, as "A River Runs Through It" is a great book, is
what Maclean has put of himself into it. Maclean is there on every page, and he has
tried to get inside some of the people he writes about.
The foreman of the crew survived by starting an escape fire in the grass in front
of the fire they were fleeing and lying down in the ashes as the main fire passed
over him. Maclean strives to understand why no one followed his lead, to see how
the father of one of the young men killed could blame the foreman (and be wrong), to explain
how who the young men were influenced how they acted and where they ended in those
last few minutes. He researches the practice of building an escape fire. (Mann Gulch
was the first use known in the forest service, and the lucky foreman could be said to have
invented it, except that James Fenimore Cooper refers to it in fiction in 1827, and
Plains Indians used the technique in reality long before that.) He analyzes the relationship of the young men to the foreman and the nature of young men and foremen and
the complexities of discipline and communication.
Guides to life
Jackson Burgess, the great professor of creative writing at Berkeley during the '60s
and '70s, used to remind his students that great writing should teach the reader
how to do something. In "A River Runs Through It," Maclean gives us enough vivid
descriptive detail about fly fishing, horse packing and gyppo logging to give us the feeling
that we might just know how it is done. In "Young Men and Fire," though there is
much concrete detail about the behavior of fire and people, what Maclean is really
teaching the reader is how to look at living and dying and how to remember both so that they
Maclean writes about Harry T. Gisborne, a pioneer in forest- fire science who died
of a heart attack in Mann Gulch the November after the fire while checking out (and
proving wrong) some of his theories about fire behavior: "For a scientist, this is
a good way to live and die, maybe the ideal way for any of us -- excitedly finding we were
wrong and excitedly waiting for tomorrow to come so we can start over, get our new
dope together, and find a Hypothesis Number One all over again." Maclean lived and
wrote in this way, and in this book we are get to watch him doing it.
I am sorry I never ran into Maclean in the woods, or at the university (he was teaching
English just a mile from where I went to high school; others in my class studied
there). I wish he could have met my son (who's working now on a trail crew in a Montana National Forest, elite and thinking himself immortal like the Smokejumpers of Mann
Gulch). I am sorry he left us only two books. But I am glad that he turned to writing
rather than shuffleboard when he retired. Now he and we and those young men have
a piece of immortality that comes only in great books.
PICTURE: Photos (2)
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