In his thrilling debut memoir, Ryan remembers his time spent serving as a California smokejumper.
Smokejumpers have earned a reputation for being more than a little crazy. Jumping out of a plane and parachuting toward an unpredictable, potentially lethal forest fire with the objective of extinguishing the blaze—that might deter most rational men and women. Ryan was a member of the courageous minority who willingly accepted this terrifying task. A gripping scene opens the memoir: With the inferno surrounding them, the firefighters are ordered to deploy their “shake and bake” shelters, aluminum survival tents intended for extreme situations. The ambient heat is palpable as the tent is showered by firebrands, and the author, sensing his own death, begins to pray. This high level of intensity sets the tone for the entire memoir. Smokejumpers are a close-knit band, united as brothers and sisters in their perilous endeavor. The author describes the difficulties of entering this profession, the rigors of training and his acceptance into this elite brotherhood. Learning his skills in California, he goes on to parachute into wildfires all over the United States, including Alaska. The presence of mortal danger is always close: planes crash, parachutes fail, wildfires turn. The author vividly describes colliding in midair with another jumper, an incident that resulted in his falling 60 feet and fracturing his spine. Capturing the “can do” persistence of America’s heroes, the author’s recovery and return to work are inspirational, spurred on by his philosophical and spiritual perspective. The memoir is also a brutally honest account of failed relationships that break down, in part, due to the author’s dedication to an unpredictable, dangerous profession. Further detail regarding the strategy of wildfire fighting would make for a more well-rounded study. Nonetheless, with an appropriate no-nonsense laconicism, there are true moments of laughter and heartache among the remarkable everyday lives of America’s lesser-known heroes.
Well-paced, informative and seldom repetitive, Ryan’s story nearly ignites.