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Young Men and Fire Paperback – 1992

4.4 out of 5 stars 209 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

On August 5, 1949, lightning came crashing down in the vast spruce forest above Seeley Lake, Montana, and touched off a roaring blaze. As every Westerner knows, lightning means fire, but the fire that raged through Mann Gulch that day was huge--the sort that occurs only every few decades. A battery of paratrooper-firefighters, many of them fresh veterans of World War II, had been anticipating it, and even looking forward to the chance to fight a great fire. Before the day ended thirteen of those smokejumpers lay dead, their charred remains evidence that something had gone terribly wrong. Norman Maclean gives a thorough account of the incident in language not meant for the squeamish: "Burning to death on a mountainside is dying at least three times ... first, considerably ahead of the fire, you reach the verge of death in your boots and your legs; next, as you fail, you sink back in the region of strange gases and red and blue darts where there is no oxygen and here you die in your lungs; then you sink in prayer into the main fire that consumes." After August 1949, he notes, the Forest Service came to recognize that not all fires need to be fought and that fire benefits most forest ecosystems.

From Publishers Weekly

On Aug. 5, 1949, 16 Forest Service smoke jumpers landed at a fire in remote Mann Gulch, Mont. Within an hour, 13 were dead or irrevocably burned, caught in a "blowup"--a rare explosion of wind and flame. The late Maclean, author of the acclaimed A River Runs Through It , grew up in western Montana and worked for the Forest Service in his youth. He visited the site of the blowup; for the next quarter century, the tragedy haunted him. In 1976 he began a serious study of the fire, one that occupied the last 14 years of his life. He enlisted the aid of fire experts, survivors, friends in the Forest Service and reams of official documents. The result is an engrossing account of human fallibility and natural violence. The tragedy was a watershed in Forest Service training--knowledge and techniques have since been improving--and this work will interest Maclean's many admirers. Photos not seen by PW. 30,000 first printing.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 301 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226500624
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226500621
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (209 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,142 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Hugo Schwyzer on February 21, 2001
Format: Paperback
I picked up this book by chance, captivated by the title and by the jacket. Since I first read it seven years or so ago, I have returned to it time and time and time again. (Indeed, I am using sections of it in a course I will be teaching soon on men and masculinity).
The publishing world has seen a plethora of non-fiction books on tragedies and natural disasters in recent years, with "The Perfect Storm" and "Into Thin Air" perhaps the most successful. But those two bestsellers pale in comparison with the subtlety, the grace, and the sheer power of Maclean's story of discovering what happened to a dozen young firejumpers on a steep Montana hillside many years ago. In the final fifty pages, as remembrances of survivors mix with a technical discussion of wind and flames, Maclean's prose is so vivid, so pure, so unadornedly beautiful that I had to put the book down three or four times because my eyes were filling with tears. 'Tis a rare work of non-fiction that can do that!
I am a deeply urban person. I know nothing of forestry or firefighting. I have never been to Montana. And I was gripped by this book from start to finish, even as Maclean skilfully avoids even the slightest shred of bathos or melodrama. It is a marvelous meditation on heroism and death, and on masculinity itself, and well, well worth the read.
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Format: Hardcover
When this book was reviewed on the front page of the "New York Times Book Review," I noted the subject and thought it would not be my cup of tea. The review changed my mind and it was only a moment from the time I finished it to being on the way to the bookstore to get the book and read it immediately. I was not disappointed. This is certainly one of the two or three best books I have ever read. Obviously, the quality of the writing is important. But, so, too, is the fact that this is simultaneously the story of a particular event in a particular time, and the quest of an aging man to resolve in his own mind what happened forty years before to young men fighting a fire in a place near where the author himself, as a youth, used to fight fires. I was more interested in the author's physical and mental determination; a colleague to whom I recommended the book was more interested in the sections that discuss the science of fire and fire-fighting. A rereading will probably lead to a fascination with some other element in the book. But, then, that is probably one of the signs of a great text. Since reading this book, I have been on the look-out for another book of this kind. So far, I have not found one. At times, I have seen this book linked to works that discuss the death of mountain climbers and the like. But MacLean did not write that kind of book. And as far as I can tell, no one has written another book like his. Not finding another book like this is existentially exhilerating. But, for a reader, there is also regret.
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Format: Paperback
I don't do much reading, but this book kept me captivated from the moment I picked it up. Books based on true stories can be dry and uninteresting; however, MacLean combines fact, speculation, and emotion in a way that keeps the reader clamoring for more. I was inspired to read "Young Men and Fire" after hearing Richard Shindell sing James Keelaghan's song, "Cold Missouri Waters" (based on MacLean's book) on the "Cry Cry Cry" CD. After reading this book, I feel compelled to visit the 13 crosses marking the tragic ending for those men on that Mann Gulch hillside.
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Format: Paperback
I decided to read "Young Men and Fire" because "A River Runs Through It" is one of my favorite novels/movies of all time. I'm afraid that my love for Maclean's other novel artificially inflated/changed my expectations for this one, but once I adjusted to the different style, I slowly grew to love this book.

The book is basically cut in half, with the first half being a re-telling of the story of the Mann Gulch fire, and the second half being more of an expository on how Maclean researched the facts of the event in order to tell the story. Quite honestly, I was bored with the book when I started it, despite the fact that the event was tragic and the characters were heroic. It felt more like a newspaper article than the literature I loved in "A River..."

But, as I pushed through the story, I came to appreciate it for what it is. Mclean exudes passion for this subject, and this book is really a beautiful intersection of his prose-like writing style (it's there, if less visibly than in "A River..."), his inexplicable passion for a subject to which he had no direct connection, and basic forensic study (ala CSI TV shows.)

Being a lover of outdoors and books that take place there, I can appreciate Mclean's felt kinship with the Smokejumpers that are the central figures in this story. I was entertained by his constant ratings and comparisons of woodsmen that enter his story, much like others debate the merits of sports figures or politicians throughout time. And that leads me to this point -- Mclean was a lover of the woods and the mountains and his brethern who shared this passion. Towards the end of his life, he found a passion that helped him to keep his mind sharp and to exert himself in the mountains he loved. The exercise was cathartic.
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