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Reviews 73 YoungMen andFire. ByNorman Maclean. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 301 pages, $19.95.) Here the insightful author of A River Runs Through It brings us his final work, a book-length “True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire.”It was on August 5, 1949, that the Mann Gulch Fire, a few miles north of Helena, Montana, exploded on the drycheat-grass slopes ofHelena National Forest and burned to death thirteen of the sixteen smokejumpers deployed against it. (Smoke-jumpers are the elite parachute-firemen ofthe U.S. Forest Service, the ultimate of the hot-shot crews.) Threejumpers survived, including their foreman, Wag Dodge. The others could have been saved had they followed their foreman into the escape fire he so quickly started ahead of the flames. Norman Maclean (1902-1990), a Montana native who fought fire in the Bitterroot Wilderness as a young man, immediately empathized with the lost firefighters and started investigating in depth what had happened to them. It was forty years before he finished thejob. Maclean had tremendous respect for the smokejumpers despite that early generation’slack of training in fire-blowup safety and the other several mistakes they made thatfatal day. Maclean spent his last thirteen years researching and writing this story; and the University of Chicago, where he was a professor for many years, has finally published it in a handsome, illustrated edition. It is a searing story and a worthy book. Maclean’s primary purpose regarding the dead is implied on page 102: “They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them.”Yetyou gradually see that he is not only telling you more than you want to know about the Mann Gulch disaster but more than you want to know about how he found out all this about the Mann Gulch disaster. And he is using the latter as a research obsession to help keep himselfactive and mentally alive. (“My anti-shuffleboard philosophy.”) Yet his telling is so artful and his thinking and insight so good thathe almost holds you anyway, in spite of having the story drag almost to a stop repeatedly between page 143 and the end, 301. Apparently to avoid opening the wounds of the loved ones of those who died, Maclean omits giving brief biographies or even photographs of them—a severe shortcoming for readers who expect to get to know something about these thirteen men he is supposedly spending an entire book to memorialize. Nor is there even a photo of Wag Dodge, the strong, heroic foreman who had the genius (even as his crew did not have the discipline or understanding of his plan) to save them. And after Wag Dodge survived, the guilt he suffered led inexorably but unprovably to his early death six years later of lymphatic cancer, a further tragedy Maclean does not give its due. The strongest characters to emerge are the two remaining survivors, Robert Sallee and Walt Rumsey, whom Maclean persuades to come back to the scorch­ ing ground on another hot August day twenty-nine years later, and have them find the landmarks and show him how it was that they escaped. And he, 74 Western American Literature Maclean, and a young smokejumper foreman, Laird Robinson, do incisive detective work over a long period of time to slowly unravel the mystery of what exactly happened. Yet most of this story #1 is better told in fifty pages in Earl Cooley’s Trimotor and Trail (1984). So what started out to be a memorial tribute to the brave young firefighters ends up being a strangely self-absorbed book that never lets us get to know the men concerned (other than the surviving two) or lets us really sympathize with the grand old man telling the story.© by STARRJENKINS, 1993 Emeritus, CalPoly State University, San Luis Obispo The Meadow. ByJames Galvin. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992. 230 pages, $19.95.) The limitations of a short review make it impossible to explain why William Kittredge calls The Meadow “one of the best books ever written about the American West.”However, there are some things to say. First, the language, tone, and images...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 73-74
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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