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Young Men and Fire
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2004
Norman Maclean wrote Young Men and Fire to tell the story of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, a tragedy overlooked throughout history. Maclean reconstructs the worst disaster in the history of smokejumping through the stories of the three lone survivors, old interviews, and his own personal accounts. The combination of Maclean's vivid language and personal experiences makes this a book to remember.
The story begins with an anecdote serving as a type of prelude entitled
"Black Ghost." Maclean tells of his own experiences fighting forest fires and the haunting images that stayed with him throughout his life. It is the perfect introduction to the story by giving readers a taste of what they are in for. "As a fire up a hillside closes in, everything becomes a mode of exhaustion- fear, thirst, terror, a twitch in the flesh that still has a preference to live, all become simply exhaustion" (7). It is this type of writing that makes readers feel as though they too are on a mission to outrun the growing fire surrounding them.
Maclean became involved with the story through the intrigue and mystery surrounding that fateful day. Maclean had arrived to his cabin in the Montana wilderness in the beginning on August 1949 and heard of the tragedy through small town gossip. He knew that this was something he would have to see for himself. Although Maclean knew that it was an immense disaster, he explains that the magnitude was unfathomable to even those familiar with forest fires.
Maclean surrounded himself with the story of Mann Gulch in the true fashion of a storyteller. He explains the differences between storytellers and historians by saying, "A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew" (102). The fact that Maclean devoted himself to this tragedy makes the book feel even more important.
Although this is a tragic story, Maclean fills the pages with symbolism of growth and rebirth. Maclean compares the act of smoke jumping to birth. "The moment the jumper starts falling is umbilical...so it is to be born in the sky- with a loud noise and your feet where your head ought to be. So it is to be born in the sky with a loud noise- the moment you cease to be umbilical you become seed, blown by the wind. Although you are seed, the sky still seems like the womb..." (54). Passages like these capture a reader's attention and give a new sense of understanding to the act of smoke jumping.
While visiting the Mann Gulch with a friend, Maclean notices the beauty that has grown through the devastation. He captures this splendor with this description, "As we climbed up from the river, we soon left summer behind and were walking through the world of spring flowers, beautiful blues and yellows, lupines and vetches, and balsam roots looking with wide brown eyes at ghosts and intruders" (180). He mixes in depictions like these throughout facts and figures of the history and keeps readers interested.
Through research and old documents, Maclean could have written a book based on other's findings and quotes from interviews done with the survivors. Instead, Maclean contacted the survivors and got to know them personally. He went back to Mann Gulch numerous times, including once with the survivors, so he could accurately describe a time and place so distant and unknown to many. He talked with several fire scientists and even mathematicians to extract every possible detail to help understand every aspect of the smokejumper's decisions.
What readers come away with after reading this book is a great deal of respect for Maclean and his crew's work and such knowledge of Mann Gulch that they may feel they would be able to retell the story themselves. This is definitely not a book I would normally have chosen to read on my own, but I have learned so much from Maclean's account and gained such an appreciation for smokejumpers and firefighters that I am glad I gave it a chance.
I would recommend this book for a wide variety of audiences. It is part of the non-fiction genre, so I would begin by saying that anyone even remotely interested in this subject should check it out. My interests generally do not lie in non-fiction, so I would also suggest that anyone looking to expand their horizons and read something different may want to start with Young Men and Fire. I would say that some parts get heavy on small details, especially toward the end when Maclean goes in depth with a mathematician, but the overall experience of reading the novel is awe and a sense of appreciation.
Maclean spent 14 years recreating this long untold story. At his death in
1990, the story was still unfinished. Publishers took the matter into their own hands, editing pieces here and there but allowing Maclean's original work to remain as he intended it. It seems that Maclean could have had all the time in the world, but because he became so involved with the story, it would never have been complete in his eyes. As he stated, "This story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them" (102). Maclean's story allows us to remember.
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on September 17, 2010
Norman does a great job of making a book out of an event that took a few hours.
From the stories behind the characters to the understanding of fire fighting and the investigation of the event, there was always interest generated and the book was hard to put down for a break. A good read.
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on August 15, 2013
This tells the true story of a number of Firefighters who lost there lives. Norman was there and it haunted him for years so he finally wrote to tell the whole story which apparently was never told. Besides he is a really good writer. You can't put it down.
RECOMMEND IT HIGHLY.
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on September 2, 2013
I first read the book in 1989 and remembered it well. After the tragic fires in Arizona that killed 19, I wanted to reread it. I did and I thought it was so thoughtful and filled with information about the actions of fires and what is needed to put them out in a logicala way.
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on September 2, 2013
This is a beautifully written book. It is reminiscent of St. Exupery -- I would stop and read some sentences 3 or 4 times. For the summer months, the subject is timely -- forest fires -- what we now commonly call wild fires. It is a perfect companion book to The Big Burn.
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on December 26, 2012
I have read this book 3 times and have visited the location in Montana being a born in " The Bronx " NYC boy it's an awesome experience. I read it twice in 1994 and visited by chance back then. Read it again two weeks ago on my IPad a great read.........!
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on January 13, 2011
This book had the same impact to me as Into Thin Air did. I couldn't put it down. Maybe because I've spent most of my life wandering around the backcountry in the western US where fire is a major part of the environment. I loved Macleans attention to detail.
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on June 19, 2000
An unbelievably-vivid account of the death march of 12 young men and boys. By the end of the book, all you see is the parting smoke and a an out-of-reach ridge and a wall of flames; you feel just as trapped as the Smokejumpers Mann Gulch consumed.
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on June 4, 2014
Maclean's dedicated investigation of the Mann Gulch fire supplies science, poetry and insight into what likely happened on the evening of August 5th, 1949. A very well-crafted western non-fiction tale, told by a revered American writer.
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on July 26, 2014
Extremely well written and very difficult to put the kindle down. The author was deeply involved in trying to get all the facts and presented all the evidence in an thrilling and complete story. Read and you will not be sorry.
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