YOUNG MEN AND FIRE by Norman Maclean

YOUNG MEN AND FIRE

KIRKUS REVIEW

 The terrifying story of the worst disaster in the history of the US Forest Service's elite Smokejumpers outfit, by the author of the classic A River Runs Through It (1976). Maclean, who died in 1990 at age 88, began his research for this book--unfinished at his death--in 1976. He brought to it his early experience as a logger and firefighter, and his exceptional literary skills. The first half, which crackles with tension, recounts that awful day, August 3, 1959, when 15 Smokejumpers parachuted into Mann Gulch in Montana to combat a small forest fire. Within two hours, 12 men had died (to this day, the only fire fatalities in the history of the Forest Service), suffocated or incinerated when the conflagration underwent a ``blowout'' into a flaming wall of death. In the second half, Maclean becomes the protagonist, as he and two survivors return to the gulch in an attempt to piece together exactly what happened, and to determine whether a secondary ``escape fire'' lit by the crew foreman to save his men had instead snuffed them out. Here, skeletal, mystical prose holds its own: ``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....'' The history of parachuting, facts about fires--lightning fires, crown fires, blowups--even the death of Maclean's wife add overtones and undertones to the tale. But the basic song remains a dirge, and also a paean to manhood, bravery, and the mysteries of the spirit. Maclean calls his book ``among other things...an exercise for old age.'' It is also an exercise in age-old wisdom--the lesson that suffering is the surest path to truth--exhaustively researched and lovingly expressed. (Thirteen halftones, two maps--not seen.)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-226-50061-6
Page count: 328pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1992




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