From Kirkus Reviews
A dense but highly readable illustrated history of fire's role in the forging of European civilization. Historian Pyne (Arizona State Univ.) has written several books (World Fire, 1995, etc.) about the impact of fire in such far-flung places as Australia and the Grand Canyon as part of a series he has titled ``Cycle of Fire.'' He now adds a strong entry to this series with this epic look at fire as a cultural artifact from the Neolithic Age to the present day. Pyne ranges from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Urals to the Atlantic in his discussion of early European societies' use of fire in transforming the landscape from its natural state into a mediated, agriculturally useful form. Theologians would later liken this evolution by fire at the hands of humans to a kind of salvation. As Pyne writes, ``the taking of land was proclaimed an act of reclamation from its fallen state.'' Elsewhere he considers the role of natural fire as a shaping force in settlement patterns, paying special attention to France and Germany, where frequent fire-related catastrophes led to advances in silviculture. A generous use of asides enlivens Pyne's discussions yet sometimes threatens to drown readers in detail. Among other topics, the author addresses the development of safety matches in the 1850s, an invention that changed fire from a near-sacred element to yet another ``industrially mass-produced object, alienated from ancient associations, an act no longer dependent on intimate skill.'' He gives us a leisurely view of ``the unholy trinity of money, politics, and firefighting,'' citing imperial Rome as a case in point. And he considers the employment of fire during war and revolution, leading to the not-unreasonable European obsession with ``fire as a villain.'' A learned and ingenious book, likely to be influential in the history of humankind's relationship with the environment. (65 illustrations, maps) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
By the scope of its ambition and its pretension, the book almost forces a reader to consider it either a masterpiece or a bombastic fizzle. William Cronon
, the environmental historian, in a foreword, argues the first view; though Cronon is an estimable judge, I tip to the second. -- The New York Times Book Review, David Quammen
Pyne breaks more ground in interpretation than in research. He bases most of his conclusions on secondary and published primary sources, many of them in translation. The volume is clearly organized according to region, but its parts (books in and of themselves) do not build on one another. It's not really necessary to read this book front to back--a fact that suggests a lack of narrative development.... Yet Pyne writes about it with great energy and splendid ability. Portions of this book contain beautiful prose, forceful constructions, and striking insights. What makes reading it so thrilling is that the author is vigorously thinking through the meaning of fire on every page.... Vestal Fire
is a work of marvelous intellectual force and considerable learning.... -- The Atlantic Monthly, Steven Stoll