Read Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean Online


     On August 5, 1949, a crew of fifteen of the United States Forest Service's elite airborne firefighters, The Smoke Jumpers, stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in the Montana wilderness. Two hours after their jump, all but three of these men were dead or mortally burned from a "blowup" -- an explosive, 2,000-degree firestorm 300 feet deep and 200 feet tall     On August 5, 1949, a crew of fifteen of the United States Forest Service's elite airborne firefighters, The Smoke Jumpers, stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in the Montana wilderness. Two hours after their jump, all but three of these men were dead or mortally burned from a "blowup" -- an explosive, 2,000-degree firestorm 300 feet deep and 200 feet tall -- a deadly explosion of flame and wind rarely encountered and little understood at the time.  Only seconds ahead of the approaching firestorm, the foreman, R. Wagner Dodge, throws himself into the ashes of an "escape fire " - and survives as most of his confused men run, their last moments obscured by smoke. The parents of the dead cry murder, charging that the foreman's fire killed their boys.  Exactly what happened in Mann Gulch that day has been obscured by years of grief and controversy. Now a master storyteller finally gives the Mann Gulch fire its due as tragedy.     These first deaths among the Forest Service's elite firefighters prompted widespread examination of federal fire policy, of the field of fire science, and of the frailty of young men. For Maclean, who witnessed the fire from the ground in August of 1949,  and even then he knew he would one day become a part of its story.  It is a story of Montana, of the ways of wildfires, firefighters, and fire scientists, and especially of a crew, young and proud, who "hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy." This tale is also Maclean's own, the story of a writer obsessed by a strange and human horror, unable to let the truth die with these young men, searching for the last - and lasting - word. A canvas on which to tell many stories, including the story of his research into the story itself. And finally Nature's violence colliding with human fallibility.      Haunted by these deaths for forty years, Norman Maclean returned to the scene with two of the survivors and pursues the mysteries that Mann Gulch has kept hidden since 1949.  From the words of witnesses, the evidence of history, and the research of fire scientists, Maclean at last assembles the scattered pieces of the Mann Gulch tragedy; in his last work that consumed 14 years of his life, and earned a 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award.       The excruciating detail of this book makes for a sobering reading experience. Maclean -- a former University of Chicago English professor and avid fisherman -- also wrote A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, which is set along the Missouri River, one gulch downstream from Mann Gulch.       "A magnificent drama of writing, a tragedy that pays tribute to the dead and offers rescue to the living.... Maclean's search for the truth, which becomes an exploration of his own mortality, is more compelling even than his journey into the heart of the fire. His description of the conflagration terrifies, but it is his battle with words, his effort to turn the story of the 13 men into tragedy that makes this book a classic."          —  from New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, Best Books of 1992The Men who Perished in the Mann Gulch Fire:Robert J. Bennett
Eldon E. Diettert
James O. Harrison
William J. Heilman
Phillip R. McVey
David R. Navon
Leonard L. Piper
Stanley J. Reba
Marvin L. Sherman
Joseph B. Sylvia
Henry J. Thol, Jr.
Newton R. Thompson
Silas R. ThompsonSurvivors of the Fire:R. Wagner Dodge, foreman
Walter B. Rumsey
Robert W. Sallee...

Title : Young Men and Fire
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ISBN : 9780226500621
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 301 Pages
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Young Men and Fire Reviews

  • Matt
    2019-02-26 02:15

    Superficially, Young Men and Fire is the story of fifteen elite Smokejumpers who died in Mann Gulch, Montana, in 1949. The Smokejumpers were all young men, the best of the best in their chosen profession: fighting forest fires. Yet, in Mann Gulch, they'd been overtaken by fire and died clawing at the steep grassy slopes. Really, though, this is a book about dying, and the important lessons about life that death provides. For it is death that gives life its value; it is death, or rather, the knowledge that we are all finite, that gives us our nobility - we love and work and plan as though we have forever, when in reality, the grains of sand started slipping through the hour glass from our first breath of air. Norman Maclean sets out to tell the story of Mann Gulch. To answer the question of how it could've happened. Along the way, however, the book becomes a meditation of life: how we grow, how we die, how we learn, and how wisdom eludes us. Maclean, of A River Runs Through It fame, writes near the end:I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to men, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death. As I said above, the book is an examination of death, which of course entails an examination of life. It's not morbid. Well, it's morbid if you think about it without thinking hard enough. It's economics, really: death is like scarcity, which increases value. It's also a common bond that keeps a disparate human race at least partially in check. As Michael Moriarty says in Bang the Drum Slowly: "Everyone knows everyone else is dying. That's why people are as good as they are." This investigation is explained by Maclean:This is a catastrophe that we hope will not end where it began; it might go on and become a story...So this story is a test of its own belief - that in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs, if only we have some curiosity, training, and compassion and take care not to lie or be sentimental...If we could say something like this and be speaking both accurately and somewhat like Shelley when he spoke of clouds and winds, then what we would be talking about would start to change from catastrophe without a filled-in story to what could be called the story of a tragedy, but tragedy would be only a part of it, as it is of life. Maclean reconstructs the last moment of these young men. How the fire blew up along their front and forced them to run. How the wind coming down the river valley entered the gulch and became a funnel, drawing in the fire. How Foreman Wag Dodge lit a backfire in front of the oncoming firestorm, then lay down in its still warm ashes as the fire washed over him - and survived. Maclean does the whole investigative journalism bit - walking the site, taking measurements, dabbling in science. But in the end, as stated earlier, the book is about death and life and the all-important interval between the two. It is about elite young men who died too soon. More importantly, it is about the compassion to learn about these young men whose lives never got much farther than 19 or 20 or 21 years of age. Compassion, as Maclean writes, is a form of love. Indeed, it is a rather powerful form. This book is a work of compassion, to know and understand lives cut far too short; more importantly, the compassion we share knowing we all walk towards the same destination and, no matter how many friends and family and lovers we accumulate, the last step, the dying, we have to do alone. This is as far as we are able to accompany them. When the fire struck their bodies, it blew their watches away. The two hands of a recovered watch had melted together at about four minutes to six. For them, that may be taken as the end of time.

  • Milo King
    2019-03-21 09:55

    A powerful, emotional and compelling story, this book probably deserves better than the two stars I am giving it. Frankly, I was not so engaged with it as I had hoped to be - and found it quite a slog to get to the end. The writing tends toward the poetical in many places - which I appreciate - while sticking to what facts Maclean was able to unearth in his 20-plus years of research on this forest fire tragedy that killed so many young men in a very few minutes. The problem for me as a reader was not that the research was exhaustive, but that the process of describing the research was exhausting and many sections seemed repetitive. Of course this was an unfinished manuscript that was found among the author's papers after his death. It was minimally edited into its current form, according to the introduction. I think it could have used more extensive editing and condensation - but I know many readers are huge admirers of the book as-is.

  • Megan Pursell
    2019-03-10 06:56

    I LOVE THIS BOOK! I read it almost annually.My husband was a fire fighter for the Forest Service, but not a smokejumper, which is why we originally purchased the book. However, I fell in love with this tale that covers a tragedy in almost classic epic style, combined with the mystery story of the science of how this event happened.

  • Mark
    2019-03-15 03:52

    What led me to search for this story was the song Cold Missouri Waters by James Keelaghan. The lyrics follow:My name is Dodge, but then you know thatIt's written on the chart there at the foot end of the bedThey think I'm blind, I can't read itI've read it every word, and every word it says is deathSo, Confession - is that the reason that you cameGet it off my chest before I check out of the gameSince you mention it, well there's thirteen things I'll nameThirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri watersAugust 'Forty-Nine, north MontanaThe hottest day on record, the forest tinder dryLightning strikes in the mountainsI was crew chief at the jump base, I prepared the boys to flyPick the drop zone, C-47 comes in lowFeel the tap upon your leg that tells you goSee the circle of the fire down belowFifteen of us dropped above the cold Missouri watersGauged the fire, I'd seen biggerSo I ordered them to sidehill and we'd fight it from belowWe'd have our backs to the riverWe'd have it licked by morning even if we took it slowBut the fire crowned, jumped the valley just aheadToo big to fight it, we'd have to fight that slope insteadFlames one step behind above the cold Missouri watersSky had turned red, smoke was boilingTwo hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behindI don't know why I just thought itI struck a match to waist high grass running out of timeTried to tell them, Step into this fire I setWe can't make it, this is the only chance you'll getBut they cursed me, ran for the rocks above insteadI lay face down and prayed above the cold Missouri watersAnd when I rose, like the phoenixIn that world reduced to ashes there were none but two survivedI stayed that night and one day afterCarried bodies to the river, wonder how I stayed aliveThirteen stations of the cross to mark to their fallI've had my say, I'll confess to nothing moreI'll join them now, because they left me long beforeThirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri watersThirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri shore

  • Fred Shaw
    2019-02-20 04:00

    "Young Men and Fire" is the true story of the tragic Mann Gulch forest fire on Aug 5, 1949, and the 13 Forest Service "Smoke Jumpers" who perished. These men were mostly young, some just teenagers who had experience parachuting and fighting forest fires. The author Norman MacLean of "A River Runs Through It", wrote this "report", as an old man near the end of his life, partly because he had been a forester early in his life and knew what it is like to be fighting forest fires, and because he grieved for the men who lost their lives so young with so much ahead of them that would never be realized; he grieved for their families as well. Mann Gulch is part of the Helena National Forest in Montana. As is always the case, whenever there is a tragedy like this, folks want someone to blame. MacLean's story, which he called a report, came after the experts and committees had thoroughly reviewed the facts, but he wanted to know for himself, what happened. There were 3 survivors, the foreman, and 2 other smoke jumpers. Here is the conclusion that I, having read the book and Mr. Maclean's: no one is to blame. Because Mother Nature has her own ideas, and the changing conditions of winds and the change in fuel, from timber to grass, high temperatures and extremely dry fire conditions, a 74 out of 100 on the forest fire likelyhood scale, they had a low to no percentage for escape. I highly recommend this book. I was fortunate to have an audio copy, read by John Maclean after his father's death. I thought I could hear a catch is his voice from time to time as he read his father's words.

  • Jess
    2019-03-12 02:12

    Having grown up about 30 miles from Mann Gulch, in Helena, I think I'm probably more interested in the subject matter than most people. However, I thought this book was still really interesting even without having been to the Missouri River at Mann Gulch. During the school year, we would take field trips out to the Gates of the Mountains and take the tour boat, which turns around pretty much at Mann Gulch. When Maclean describes the change in mountain cliffs to prairie, I can see it so vividly. Besides taking the tour boat many times, my family or friends would go boating out at the Gates.I probably would have never have read this book, though, except I saw it on my brother-in-law's bookshelf. He's a firefighter and has fought many a wildfire in the West. He said it was really good, so I finally picked it up from the library about 6 months later. I think it's really interesting how Maclean portrays the Forest Service, so I'm looking forward to someday talking to my brother in law about it. It's really sad that so many of the details about the fire has been lost to time, negligence and death. But it still gave me a more complete picture of the fire and the boys that died (and survived) there.

  • Cardyn Brooks
    2019-02-28 03:01

    In Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean's background as woodsman, scholar, and storyteller blends the perfect mix of wry pragmatism, scientific research, and compassionate narration. Having read The Big Burn first provided a deeper understanding of the context in which N.M. examines the Mann Gulch fire, the reach of its legacy, and the lives and deaths of the Smokejumpers sent to kill it in 1949. The last section of Young Men and Fire refers to convergence multiple times and this term accurately describes the entire book as well as the Mann Gulch fire. The convergence of good intentions with bad circumstances; of man's tunnel vision with nature's fury; of tenacious historians with scientific mysteries; of survivors' imperfect memories with empirical facts. Norman Maclean writes with an enchanting balance of no-nonsense compassion and empathy for human foibles. It's easy to believe that he was a very popular and wise professor with long wait lists for his classes. As a result of my infatuation with his style and substance, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories has been added to my TBR list (which is why it never ever shrinks no matter how fast my reading pace).

  • Trish
    2019-02-20 03:03

    I read this twice, once again after a period of years. I had remembered it as something that changed the way I thought about fire. To me now, I remember it as a sort of war had that horrifying inevitability and those devastating consequences that are the stuff of war. It explained the vocabulary and choreography of fire fighting in remote areas and told of blow-overs and the terrifically searing heat, wind, and weather created in a firestorm. I have an awe of those men and women willing to brave such conditions fighting fire, and fear for them. I will never willingly or knowing place myself or them in danger by trying to outwit or outguess a wildfire. I feel great sadness for those whose families, homes, and livelihoods are threatened by fire, flood, or wind. But I would prefer to lose all and begin again than face the unholy rage with which there is no argument.

  • Joyce
    2019-02-21 01:48

    I think this is the first unabridged recording of Maclean's classic investigation of the tragic Mann Gulch fire in 1949 in Montana. This summer I've been reading novels of the West with a group of friends, and we had already discussed Maclean's A River Runs Through It. At the same time I listened to this, I had just listened to Ivan Doig's English Creek, also set in Montana but earlier, and there's also a fire but not such a tragic one. Maclean tries to make sense of the deaths of the trained firefighting paratroopers who died in this fire, and he goes to great lengths to examine the data and to try to recreate events that day. I confess the science became a little tedious, but no one beats Maclean's luminous prose and descriptions.

  • Susan
    2019-03-21 04:09

    My summer book club's theme this year is Western male contemporary writers, and we just read A River Runs Through It. It seemed time to read Young Men and Fire, also by Norman Maclean, whose writing style and sense of morality and meaning in life resonate with me. Young Men and Fire was first published in the 1990's. At that time, I heard several commentaries on NPR about Maclean, this book and firefighting in general, and it has long been on my reading list. The story of the Mann Gulch, Montana, fire in 1949 that killed 13 young male smokejumper firefighters haunted Maclean, a less technical firefighter when he was a very young man, from the time he visited the site in late 1949 (and it was still smoking) through the 1970's when he began doing formal research on it. Was it inevitable that all these young men die or was the foreman's behavior somewhat to blame? That was one question. And then, since Maclean was in his 70's when he began researching the fire and his wife had already died, he was also facing his own mortality and the fact that it could have been him in the fire as a young man if circumstances had been different. So the book become a tale of gathering the facts of the fire, telling the facts as they were known and stated in public records, and about trying to uncover facts that were not readily available because they had been somewhat covered up by a bureaucracy which did not want to be seen as negligent or guilty in its training or the resultant death of these young men.By the time Maclean wrote the book, fire science had advanced greatly and included computer programming, of which Maclean availed himself through others. Some of the science was a bit of a slog, although things such as the extreme slope of the hill where the fire was impacting the rate of the spread of the fire made absolute sense to me.

  • Margaret
    2019-03-07 09:12

    I actually read this book about 15 years ago, but it's stayed with me powerfully enough to earn its 5 stars retroactively. The other night, looking for something else, I came across what I wrote about it at the time, so this is a retroactive review as well, but it still feels accurate to the experience I remember.Young Men and Fire is Norman Maclean's posthumous book about the 1949 Mann Gulch forest fire in Montana. Sixteen young flame-jumpers were dropped on what was supposed to be a routine job, but the wind changed, the fire jumped the ravine ahead of them, and they ended up in a race for their lives to the top of the ridge. The book ambles along at a deceptively leisurely pace considering the dramatic subject matter, and it does tell you considerably more than you want to know about the science of wildfire, but it's layered like Peer Gynt's onion with tangential meditations on the impassive brutality of nature and the tragic bravado of youth, on history and science and literature, and the peculiar sense of obligation Maclean began to feel towards the young men whose story he was trying to tell and who seemed to be asking him to find in their fragmented and incomplete history an adequate explanation for what happened to them. He doesn't go on and on about anything, he just sets it down gently in the light of his lucid prose and leaves you to consider it on your own time, and I found that the book stayed with me for many days after I finished reading it. In retrospect it has begun to seem to me to be somewhat about the nature of faith, along with everything else. Maclean's clean, direct style is peculiarly compelling, and although you do have to whack your way through a lot of stuff about relative wind velocity and fire science, you can treat it like the names in Russian novels - you don't actually read them, you just kind of register the information so you'll recognize it the next time it comes up!

  • Michelle
    2019-03-16 04:54

    This book is more than the account of the infamous 1949 Mann Gulch fire that took the lives of 13 U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers and left 3 survivors, all young men, to provide clues but no answers as to how and why; Norman Maclean has transformed the account into an accounting. Maclean had been a firefighter in the same forests where the Mann Gulch disaster happened and spent years of his life tracking down people and documents involved in the Forest Service investigation and revisiting the scene of the fire to find answers to his own questions, the universal questions.Maclean poured a lifetime of writing experience into this book; his most well-known work is *A River Runs Through It* which was made into a 1992 movie. *Young Men and Fire* was his last work and was unfinished at his death according to the publisher's note, although you wouldn't know it to read it. Nothing I could say would add to the praise heaped upon his head but the man can capture subtle and formless thoughts about what it means to be a human on this earth and pin them to the page with straightforward and plainspoken words.He explicitly refuses to resort to maudlin imaginings about the internal lives of the men before and during the fire and yet the book was deeply moving. He slows down the motion of what must have taken only about 60 minutes to turn from a "routine" (if smokejumping can ever be routine, which it can't) job to literal hellfire. He examines the action frame by frame, yard by yard, stretches it out in time and space and dissects it with the utmost care and tenderness.This book is a truly moving tribute to those lost at Mann Gulch and a work of poetry and philosophy disguised as non-fiction.

  • Cherie
    2019-03-18 03:05

    My book is full of highlights and bookmarks of all the things I wanted to remember to try to add to my review. Wonderful observations and passages, written so beautifully by Norman Maclean, that I got a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye reading them. Were the tears for the words or the subject matter? Both. This story is not easy. What happened was terrible. It was unbelievable. It had never happened before. That was the beginning. What happened? There was a wildfire and and lots of young men died. I am not giving anything away. This happend in 1949 in Mann Gulch, Montana.Part of this story is a memoir, and part of it is a mystery investigation. It is simply an amazing story of one man's dedication to chronicle the events, and to look into the how and why of what happened. That he started it at the age of 74, and that he went back to that place 4 times in the last years of his life, is only a part of the story. He had written most of it, but it was not published until 1992, two years after he had passed away. The editors, who published the book, note that YMaF was a story in search of a story. "It followed where Maclean's compassion led it." His part in the story ended in 1987, when he became too ill to work. I think the Press editors did a great job putting it all together, mostly from Macleans notes and the manuscript that he had already generated. It is a story well worth spending the time to read!

  • Aaron
    2019-03-12 04:06

    It is a great thing that this book has been given to the world, considering how much of his life and energy Norman Maclean devoted to it. A shame, also, that he wasn't able to finish it himself. I wonder how much additional polish and editing he would have done to make it a spectacular read. In "Young Men and Fire" Maclean takes the reader to the disastrous Mann Gulch blowup and examines it through testimony of the survivors, all of the photographs and documents that exist, personal interviews and visits to the scene, and modern computer analysis of fire behavior. Along the way he also looks at the ramifications of the events from grief and lawsuits to it's importance in the history of the forest service and the development of fire science as a whole. The book is *also* his personal story...a quest to gather all of the information, expose it with as much truth and perspective as possible, and finally bring closure to questions and controversy that were never completely dealt with.Accomplishing all of this is a lot to do in one work, of course, especially when it's unfolding simultaneously. Because of this it can seem like Maclean is jumping around and repeating himself a lot. Also, he likes to wax poetic (literally) quite a bit about the nature of life and death, fire, youth, and old age (his own). He links these and poetic thoughts to the story often...which is sometimes beautifully poignant but other times fairly jarring as it comes in the midst of technical examination of facts and theories. The last chapter, for example, as he tries to sum up everything into something meaningful for all of humanity...I found pretty unreadable for about 5 pages. It was just over the top with soliloquies and poetic recablings. But then it returns in clarity and again offers well formed thoughts that romanticize all of it quite nicely.Another challenge I encountered (which seems rather trivial but was quite annoying) is that for much of the book I had a hard time picturing what Mann Gulch and the physical locations where the fire and the deaths occurred looked like. The terms used may be familiar to Maclean and those he referred to as "experienced woodsmen" but for me they were obscure. Ridge, reef, sidehill, gulch, fingergulch, canyon, mouth of the gulch, upgulch, upslope, crevice, saddle. Coming across the maps and photographs included helped some, but unfortunately they were poorly reproduced in the Kindle version I purchased. As Maclean attempted to recreate the events with timelines, yardage, speed, and space he included references to points on the map, for example. Too bad for me these were impossible to see on the poor quality jpegs in my version. It's a shame the publisher didn't do a better job on the ebook. Formatting errors were also found in abundance.If I were unbiased I would have to rate the book on it's own 3/5 stars. It's very hard to be unbiased, though, after going along on the journey with him and knowing it is essentially 30+ years of his hard work and possibly his greatest passion. All in all it definitely accomplishes what it attempts to do and I imagine the need to rework and polish the book into something more digestible (publishable) is what prevented him from doing so. I think if he had had time and ability it could have been polished to an easy 4-5 star creation...a classic, a bestseller. It has the content and legworth to deserve that, I think. Because of this I'm rating it 4 stars.After reading it I will never see some things the same. A fire danger rating, for example. A short news blurb that firefighters got a grass fire in steep terrain contained. The very real risk of wildland fires and amazing power of nature. The fascinating nature of fire science and computer modeling. The terror of being unable to outrun a 30-40 foot wall of flame. Beyond the occasional tedium I am glad I read this book and would highly recommend it.

  • Tyler
    2019-02-20 06:05

    Young Men and Fire recounts the Mann Gulch Fire, a forest fire fought in the 1940's by one of the first teams of Smokejumpers to actually parachute to a fire. The basic story has been laid out in the synopsis and its details have by now been told in various reviews. What potential readers may not have learned, though, is what sets this book apart. Why read it when the plot is already out of the bag? For one thing, the fire itself forms such an antagonistic element of the story. The author, Norman Maclean, succeeds in conjuring it into a living specter, and this tells us a lot about his literary strength. It will be pointed out, too, that the Smokejumpers themselves are the apparent subject. But maybe, to state it better, it’s Maclean’s awe of the Smokejumpers that drives the telling; he himself had fought forest fires professionally before smokejumping was even invented. His interest borrows as well from the same fascination so many of us mortals indulge for physically elite units – SWAT detachments, Navy Seals or pro sports teams, to name a few. The author’s connection to firefighting gives his point of view an authentic, even a spiritual, tang. In fact, I would have been delighted if he had developed this further. But what we discover in Young Men and Fire also entails an unsolved mystery: The mystique of the Mann Gulch Fire starts when one of the Smokejumpers, as the fire closes in, does something so startling that firefighters were still talking about it decades later. This act sparked interest in the unknown dynamics of forest fires, so on top of the human drama we soon find ourselves on a quest. A gnawing need drives the book, a need to find out exactly what unfolded in Mann Gulch, and how the strange behavior of a team member changed it. Could the one act of a single Smokejumper actually have thrown a gigantic fire off course? And to what effect? The poignant loss at Mann Gulch takes Maclean into the emerging science of forest fires. A couple of small matters detract from the book. While lionizing the Smokejumpers, Maclean doesn't fail to denigrate the other 2300 firefighters who fought at Mann Gulch, depicting them as drunks and useless idiots. And for someone so enthralled with the Smokejumpers, his book is too thin on the human interest details that naturally suggest themselves. The author could easily have corrected both faults. Yet the prose that describes the fated Smokejumpers can’t be beat. The combination of exquisite elegiac and unsolved mystery drives this book along an inviting trajectory. It even has a section of photos in the middle, plus topographical maps and annotated photos of the Mann Gulch region, which let readers follow every detail of the action. The Smokejumpers and the fire are the subjects here, but Maclean’s obsessed passion for both give this book a vitality that can’t be counterfeited.

  • Gina
    2019-03-22 10:04

    This is a thoughtful rumination on the terrible 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana that resulted in the deaths of 13 smoke jumpers. It circles around and around on the event, which for me got more and more interesting and intense and vivid; by the end I felt I understood the place and the people and their impossible choices. It was written in the 1980s, and was a fascinating glimpse into the then-cutting-edge use of computers and "science" to better understand fire behavior. It also made me more interested in the tragic 1994 South Canyon fire that killed 14 fire fighters just miles from where I live now; the son of Norman Maclean wrote a book about that fire that I might read. I felt like the ending few sentences recast the entire book in a different and more moving light, the idea that his decades long obsession with the fire was really his obsession with his wife's battle with cancer and her desperate and unsuccessful quest to outrun its flames.

  • Kosie
    2019-02-25 05:50

    A book I really looked forward to reading, but was a little disappointed in the end. The book is very well written, but is written a little bit too poetic for my liking and that is why I struggled through it at times. It is also a bit repetitive and not enough is written about the Young Men on the crew and too much time in the book is spent on the authors research and the science of fire behavior.

  • Marian Deegan
    2019-03-09 09:51

    After years of "meaning to get around to this book", I finally tracked down Norman Maclean's last book, Young Men and Fire, which I assumed was another series of short stories about strapping lads living in tents, playing cards, beating out the occasional fire, and dealing with the rattlesnakes and other critters they encountered along the way ... all recounted with Maclean's laconic wit and thoughtfulness, naturally.But this isn't that sort of book at all. It is the true story of what had appeared to be a quite ordinary forest fire in a remote bit of Montana called Mann Gulch. A plane full of daring young Smokejumpers was dispatched to get it under control. They landed fine, but then the fire did something no one had seen a fire do before, and the results were catastrophic. Norman Maclean spent the last years of his life investigating this fire, hunting down survivors, working with scientists who specialize in the physics of fires, and dragging his old bones through the unforgiving elements to climb around the Gulch itself, in an attempt to suss out what had happened. He died before the book was completed, but his publishers managed to stitch it together, and published it posthumously 5 years later, to front page acclaim in the New York Times Book Review.At first blush, this may not sound like the sort of book which would leave me reeling ... but it did. Mostly because of that magical thing Maclean is able to do...with a perspective which is part self-reliant woodsman and part Shakespearean scholar, he translates the specific into a universally human perspective. He spent a good deal of time musing about how the job of a storyteller can be to take a catastrophe, and with honest, unflinching, and unsentimental words, reshape it into tragedy. He says it better. Here:The Mann Gulch fire should not end there, smoke drifting away and leaving terror without consolation of explanation, and controversy without lasting settlement. Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died but "still alertly erect in fear and wonder," those who loved them forever questioning "this unnecessary death," and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one. This is a catastrophe that we hope will not end where it began; it might go on and become a story. It will not have to be made up-that is all important to us-but we do have to know in what odd places to look for missing parts of a story about a wildfire and of course have to know a story and a wildfire when we see one. So this story is a test of its own belief-that in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs, if only we have some curiosity, training, and compassion and take care not to lie or be sentimental. It would be a start to a story if this catastrophe were found to have circled around out there somewhere until it could return to itself with explanations of its own mysteries and with the grief it left behind, not removed, because grief has its own place at or near the end of things, but altered somewhat by the addition of something like wonder-wonder, for example, because now we can say that the fire whirl which destroyed was caused by three winds on a river. If we could say something like this and be speaking both accurately and somewhat like Shelley when he spoke of clouds and winds, then what we would be talking about would start to change from catastrophe without a filled-in story to what could be called the story of a tragedy, but tragedy would be only a part of it, as it is of life. It's different with me now from when I first started climbing Mann Gulch. Now I carry inside me part of the purgation of its tragedy. It is the part of me and the tragedy that knows more about forests and fires because of this forest fire. If now the dead of this fire should awaken and I should be stopped beside a cross, I would no longer be nervous if asked the first and last question of life, How did it happen?Norman Maclean understood that fires are like heartbreaks are like any devastating event which befalls a human being. There are all kinds of methods with which to deal with a devastation. Some are healthier than others. What I realized is that probably one of the reasons Maclean's work so resonates with me is that his natural inclination, when faced with loss, is to go in search of the true story of what happened. As Maclean {and Allende} have learned, when we are able to unearth the root of loss, and see its story clear, that story contains the pain; gives it form and boundaries, and turns grief into something we can understand and with which we can negotiate a sort of peace. Maclean is brilliant, and I think this book is a must-read.

  • Brian Angle
    2019-02-23 05:58

    Disappointing. Expected some deep thoughts about manliness, dying young, tragedy, courage, etc. But this was really just a procedural about how the author tried to figure out EXACTLY what happened when a dozen firefighters got caught by a fire. The actual incident was very simple: big fire blew up and caught most of them before they could escape. All the painstaking detail to figure out exactly who was where and when every second was all meaningless (to me). This felt like it was written by an engineer, spending years trying to connect all the dots. All of the focus was on the logistics, with no focus on the victims as people. Just a pet project that Maclean was obsessed with figuring out. Story went nowhere, and the ride was boring. I can't figure out all the positive reviews.

  • heidi
    2019-03-22 07:48

    Norman MacLean inadvertently gave me one of my formative views on writing. I was in high school when "A River Runs Through It" came out. I don't remember much about it, fly-fishing not being my passion, but I remember a crusty newspaper editor saying to a young writer, "Good. Now half."Good. Now half.I carried that piece of wisdom around from that day on. So it seems interestingly circular that Young Men and Fire is really two books, and if halved, either could stand alone.The first half is the story of the Mann Gulch fire: what the terrain is like, who the boys were, what smokejumping was like at that point. It includes a meticulous and heart-pounding timeline of how everything went so wrong, and the rescue efforts, such as they were. It is the classic disaster analysis narrative, but with some really beautiful prose, and a weird dreamlike recounting of MacLean's own firefighting experience. As I was reading, I thought that I was glad I was not John MacLean, to try and cover the same ground his father had, but with less obvious mastery of the language. The elder man's writing is so sharp and vivid."Here the fire rocked back and forth like a broadjumper before it started toward the takeoff. Then it jumped. One by one, other like fires reached the line, rocked back and forth, and they all made it.""The black poles looked as if they had been born of the gray ashes as the result of some vast effort at sexual intercourse on the edges of the afterlife.""There’s nothing wrong with romanticism, except that sometimes it isn’t enough."Alone, this would be a near-perfect book (he gets a little distracted by prose sometimes).The second half of the book is also fascinating, in a less whizz-bang way. It is the story of MacLean teaching himself investigative journalism late in life, in pursuit of this one story. It's about an old man and his need to understand what happened. He fights through both literal and metaphorical obstacles, trying to track the paper trail, the minimal amount of data that was collected, the way processes were changed. "Also genetically they like shady secrets and genetically they like to protect shady secrets but have none of their own. I gather that government organizations nearly always have this unorganized minority of Keepers of Unkept Secrets, and one of these, I was told, went so far as to write a letter to be read at a meeting of the staff of the regional forester reporting that I was making suspicious visits to Mann Gulch and reportedly and suspiciously arranging to bring back with me to Mann Gulch the two survivors of the fire.""Scholars of the woods know that one of the best bibliographical reference works to consult is the postmistress of a nearby logging town."He also went back to Mann Gulch over and over, trying to pace out the locations of the bodies, the fires. Imagine this old man, clambering awkwardly up the steep slope in the hot summer sun, trying to think what it had been like.Eventually he trails off into the realm of math and science, studying how fast a fire travels in different fuels, what effect slope has, what we can now figure out and reconstruct. Overall, it's a very hopeful story, that we can learn enough to prevent the same thing from happening over and over again."I said to myself, “Now we know, now we know.” I kept repeating this line until I recognized that, in the wide world anywhere, “Now we know, now we know” is one of its most beautiful poems."Read if: You are looking for evocative, mannered prose. You love fire stories and investigative reporting. You are on some kind of wildfire book kick as I obviously am.Skip if: You are an impatient reader, in search of a plot. You will be bothered by trying to find meaning in a disaster. Philosophical noodling will make you nuts.Also read: All the President's Men for the story of reporting a story. The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America for information on what led to the nature of the Forest Service that MacLean is dealing with.

  • Mark Stevens
    2019-03-18 08:00

    Published 22 years ago, “Young Men & Fire” still crackles today. Norman MacLean’s account of the Mann Gulch fire, which claimed the lives of 13 firefighters in 1949, is a powerful piece of narrative journalism. But MacLean warps the form—fearlessly. He practically instructs us how to react and think about the tragedy, yanking us up steep canyon walls to ponder the series of easily-made mistakes in the tragedy, where “young men died like squirrels.” The lightning-sparked fire was a “catastrophic collision of fire, clouds and winds” in Mann Gulch, located between Butte and Great Falls along the upper Missouri River. The fire was first spotted by a forest ranger and soon a C-47 was on the way with smokejumpers on board, heading to the remote canyon with winds so rough that one smokejumper got sick and did not jump. Fifteen smokejumpers parachuted into the fire and joined the forest ranger, who had been fighting the fire on his own for hours, on the ground. MacLean parses these first few decisions carefully and highlights the many ways in which it was unlikely this crew might succeed—their youth, lack of training and lack of training together. To make matters worse, their radio was destroyed during the jump (its parachute failed to open). The tragedy unspools over a few fast hours, flames racing up the steep slopes of the canyon, feeding on knee-high cheatgrass. MacLean does an admirable job of breaking down the series of events, but it gets a bit complicated and hard to picture, no matter how many times MacLean takes us back to various vantage points to consider (and reconsider) how the flames won and the men lost.The Mann Gulch fire is infamous for the tragedy but also noted for the “escape fire” lit by Wagner Dodge, who figured out in the high-pressure situation that the way to survive was to light his own fire and lay down in the smoking embers in order to hide, essentially, from the bigger onrushing blaze. Dodge urged others to join him, but they didn’t heed his pleas—or didn’t understand the strategy, given the panic. Dodge was one of three survivors. The controversy over this moment—could others have survived as well?—remains. MacLean takes on the role of investigator, prosecutor and philosopher. “Young Men & Fire” is compelling reading precisely because MacLean asserts his point of view and takes us inside his thought process, neatly interweaving his personal take with events on the ground and almost insisting that we try and figure out what happened. “We enter now a different time zone, even a different world of time. Suddenly comes the world of slow-time that accompanies grief and moral bewilderment trying to understand the extinction of those whose love and everlasting presence were never questioned. Al there was to time were the fixty-six speeding minutes before the fire picked watches off dead bodies, blew them up a hillside ahead of the bodies, and froze the watch hands together. Ahead now is a world of no explosions no blowups, and, without a storyteller, not many explanations.”MacLean purposely weaves himself into the story, determined to come to terms with the tragedy in the same way he wrote the novel “A River Runs Through It” as a way to come to terms with the death of his brother. In the end, MacLean doesn’t have all the answers and views the Mann Gulch with a long view. The “truculent universe,” he concludes, “prefers to retain the Mann Gulch fire as one of its secrets—left to itself, it fades away, an unsolved violent incident grieved over by the fewer and fewer still living who are old enough to grieve over fatalities of 1949.”

  • Israel
    2019-03-11 06:12

    What begins as an investigation into the Mann Gulch Fire—its causes, costs, and emotional fallout—becomes a meditation on time, memory, and the act of narration itself. As he says, "a storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leds him." And in this book, Maclean uses the alchemy of narration to transform a disaster into a tragedy and, ultimately, into a sort of grace. Whether he succeeds depends upon the reader.

  • Mary Soderstrom
    2019-02-23 06:15

    Nineteen young firefighters were burned to death over the weekend in Arizona, and this morning we smell smoke from forest fires 900 kilometers from Montreal near James Bay in Northern Quebec. Both disquieting, an evidence again of the uneasy relation between fire and humans.Norman Maclean, William Rainey Harper Professor of English at the University of Chicago and author of one of the best novels ever about Montana and the West, was marked by another forest fire disaster. In 1949 when Maclean was in his early mid 40s, a crew of 15 elite Smokejumpers were trapped in an immense conflagration in Montana just hours after their jump. Only three survived, and for years afterwards Maclean was haunted by both the fire and what the young men must have gone through. His account, Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire, was published two years after his death in 1990. Long awaited, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992.As an example of how to integrate research into creative non-fiction it has few peers. Maclean ferreted out the details of the young men's lives and placed them in context of the period. He also attempted to view their experience in the larger framework of our mortality. "It had been said since tragedy was first analyzed that it is governed by the emotions of fear and pity. As the Smokejumpers went up the was like a great jump backwards into the sky--they were suddenly and totally without command and suddenly without structure and suddenly free to disintegrate and free finally to be afraid..."Beyond the world of sight and soon even beyond fear, the nonhuman elements of heat and toxic gasses were becoming the only two elements, and soon heat was even burning out fear..."For anyone, old or young, who wonders about fire, the book is worth reading. But for those who would like to read Maclean at his height, I can't recommend too highly A River Runs through It and Other Stories. And the movie with Brad Pitt, directed by Robert Redford, isn't too bad.For more about books and the writing life: http://notsosolitaryapleasure.blogspo...

  • Erica
    2019-03-17 03:59

    While this kind of book is not normally my cup of tea, Young Men and Fire went down all right--a spoon full of sugar, etc., etc. The book (nonfiction) is about sixteen smokejumpers who were killed in the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949. Maclean pieces the story together bit by bit, teasing at its threads from all different angles to try to figure out exactly what went wrong. Maclean is a strong presence throughout the book--in fact, I would say that the book is even more about Maclean's obsession with the fire and his decades-long search for its meaning than it is about the fire itself. Maclean wrote it at the end of his life (he died before he finished it), and it therefore has a certain maturity of theme that makes it more than just a tragic adventure/history story. His questions are about death, fate, and blame, and none of them is ever resolved, or even resolvable. That is what I liked about the book; it has layers. Maclean also draws the characters skillfully and evokes the horror of the the men's deaths in a very understated way. He could have gone on and on for pages describing the gore, but he accomplishes it in just a few poignant, well-crafted sentences.There is an entire section of this book near the end where there are mathematicians and intimidating graphs, but I found it highly skippable. Lastly, I gave this book to my Dad to read--I think he'll like it.

  • Paula
    2019-03-15 03:00

    A terribly tragic story, but not very well constructed. The author does an excellent job in the first part of the book covering what was thought to have happened. The terminology can be a little bit difficult to follow (the firefighters will alternately travel up river, up hill and up gulch- which are 3 distinct and somewhat opposing directions), although he goes do an excellent job of explaining firefighting terminology. He looses me in the second part of the book- where he decides to try and delve into the accusations and figure out what really happens is a huge let down. He did a lot of work to track down the survivors, but the logistics aren't that interesting, he convinces them to revisit and they spend a lot of time on sight repeating the same reports covered earlier in the book, mostly vague, because after all they were in the middle of a firestorm and became separated. Its a lot of "I think it was this bush over here, or no, that break in the rocks over there" which might come alive if you were there if written by a more skilled author. It should have been a very moving scene- the return to the site of such a devastating event with the survivors- but it isn't, and there is no big reveal. You can also clearly tell the author was an high school English teacher- he likes to beat you over the head with his metaphors and personal symbolism, but he's no Robert Frost. Its clumsy and doesn't add to the story.

  • Aaron Smith
    2019-03-13 03:10

    Maclean can really write. Midway through, I knew that he was not just giving a moment to moment account of his search for information on the Mann Gulch fire, but rather guiding the reader through the information in the way that would infect his readers with his own obsession with this event. He knew what he was doing. There's so much pathos begging for context in this story but Maclean was very restrained with drawing conclusions or applying symbolism to soothe the reader. When he breaks down and does, it's executed with master's touch and is thoughtful, restrained and welcome.Maclean's own journey in writing the book is included in the text and is part of what makes this book worth reading. He wrote this book in his seventies and was determined to keep challenging himself physically and intellectually at that age. It's an amazing juxtaposition to the main story where the strength of thirteen young men isn't enough to save them. Living in a part of the country with lots of hills and trees, I now find them haunted by the ghosts of this story. (They were recently vacated by Shelby Foote and his troops.) It takes a good book to do that.

  • Al
    2019-03-16 05:53

    Norman Maclean, perhaps best known as the author of A River Runs Through It, began researching the famous Mann Gulch (in Montana) forest fire of 1949 late in his life, and worked on the project until the time of his death at age 88 in 1990. Thirteen young men, twelve of them Smokejumpers, died when this fire "blew up" and they couldn't outrun it. The tragedy evidently haunted Maclean, himself a woodsman, and he returned again and again to the site, trying to understand what had happened, and why. He never finished the book; his drafts were edited and published posthumously. The book is fascinating, albeit somewhat elliptical and a little too long, but one continues to pay attention despite some repitition because Maclean's digressions and ruminations are almost as interesting as the story of the fire itself. By the time it's over, the reader has learned not only about the fire, but also about the fragility of life, the heedlessness of youth, and the limits of understanding. Good stuff.

  • Dara Salley
    2019-02-26 08:50

    Norman Maclean’s prose is a little overstated at times. It can verge into melodrama and is VERY heavy on Catholic imagery. That being said, I thought this was a wonderful book. I read an article about the Man Gulch Fire that referenced “Young Men and Fire”. I was so intrigued by the sudden tragedy and the concept of a “rescue fire” that I had to read more about it. The closest I’ve ever been to a wildfire was seeing one in the distance as I drove along a Montana highway. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be near one, especially one as deadly as the Man Gulch fire. I enjoyed Maclean’s thorough, scientific explanation of the physics and geometry of wildfires. Maclean emphasizes that even for experienced firefighters, it’s impossible to conceive of the conditions inside a wildfire blow-up. He makes a heroic effort using precise science mixed with dreamlike imagery. It’s an effective combination.

  • Kiri
    2019-03-14 08:14

    The narrator has a slightly nasally voice so it took me a bit to get used to. However the narrative is engrossing and I was soon lost in it. As others have pointed out the attention to detail is quite good. The fact that I began to apply my own skills to what was being revealed should speak to that. Not only does it cover the original event, it reconstructs and reveal the subsequent events after it - including the handling of it by the Forest Service and the Government. Maclean also discusses the moral perspective that we all address as living beings - but not in a heavy handed way. I especially liked the last section where they discussed the scientific / mathematical theories of fire. Yes I'm a sad geek. A solid 4.8. Like others half stars would be handy a 4.5 would be a good choice for this. (12 Days gift)

  • Denise
    2019-03-12 02:05

    "My name is Dodge, but you know that. It's written there on the footend of the bed. " - That's the opening lines of the song "Cold Missouri Waters" which I first heard performed by Cry Cry Cry (made up of Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, and Lucy Kaplansky). Shindell's haunting take on this song backed with the heart-wrenching harmonies by Williams and Kaplansky made me research the story behind the song. The Mann Gulch fire was a tragedy, no doubt about it. It haunted the survivors, particularly Dodge, for the rest if their lives. MacLean does a brilliant job of retelling the tale, and researching what went wrong, how, and why. The reader is left with a profound sadness for the events, and huge respect for the heroes who fight these disasters.