Aaron's Reviews > Young Men and Fire

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jun 20, 2011

really liked it
Read from June 20 to July 04, 2011

It is a great thing that this book has been given to the world, considering how much of his life and energy Norman Maclean devoted to it. A shame, also, that he wasn't able to finish it himself. I wonder how much additional polish and editing he would have done to make it a spectacular read.

In "Young Men and Fire" Maclean takes the reader to the disastrous Mann Gulch blowup and examines it through testimony of the survivors, all of the photographs and documents that exist, personal interviews and visits to the scene, and modern computer analysis of fire behavior. Along the way he also looks at the ramifications of the events from grief and lawsuits to it's importance in the history of the forest service and the development of fire science as a whole. The book is *also* his personal story...a quest to gather all of the information, expose it with as much truth and perspective as possible, and finally bring closure to questions and controversy that were never completely dealt with.

Accomplishing all of this is a lot to do in one work, of course, especially when it's unfolding simultaneously. Because of this it can seem like Maclean is jumping around and repeating himself a lot. Also, he likes to wax poetic (literally) quite a bit about the nature of life and death, fire, youth, and old age (his own). He links these and poetic thoughts to the story often...which is sometimes beautifully poignant but other times fairly jarring as it comes in the midst of technical examination of facts and theories. The last chapter, for example, as he tries to sum up everything into something meaningful for all of humanity...I found pretty unreadable for about 5 pages. It was just over the top with soliloquies and poetic recablings. But then it returns in clarity and again offers well formed thoughts that romanticize all of it quite nicely.

Another challenge I encountered (which seems rather trivial but was quite annoying) is that for much of the book I had a hard time picturing what Mann Gulch and the physical locations where the fire and the deaths occurred looked like. The terms used may be familiar to Maclean and those he referred to as "experienced woodsmen" but for me they were obscure. Ridge, reef, sidehill, gulch, fingergulch, canyon, mouth of the gulch, upgulch, upslope, crevice, saddle. Coming across the maps and photographs included helped some, but unfortunately they were poorly reproduced in the Kindle version I purchased. As Maclean attempted to recreate the events with timelines, yardage, speed, and space he included references to points on the map, for example. Too bad for me these were impossible to see on the poor quality jpegs in my version. It's a shame the publisher didn't do a better job on the ebook. Formatting errors were also found in abundance.

If I were unbiased I would have to rate the book on it's own 3/5 stars. It's very hard to be unbiased, though, after going along on the journey with him and knowing it is essentially 30+ years of his hard work and possibly his greatest passion. All in all it definitely accomplishes what it attempts to do and I imagine the need to rework and polish the book into something more digestible (publishable) is what prevented him from doing so. I think if he had had time and ability it could have been polished to an easy 4-5 star creation...a classic, a bestseller. It has the content and legworth to deserve that, I think. Because of this I'm rating it 4 stars.

After reading it I will never see some things the same. A fire danger rating, for example. A short news blurb that firefighters got a grass fire in steep terrain contained. The very real risk of wildland fires and amazing power of nature. The fascinating nature of fire science and computer modeling. The terror of being unable to outrun a 30-40 foot wall of flame. Beyond the occasional tedium I am glad I read this book and would highly recommend it.
2 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Young Men and Fire.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

13.0% "Learning about how fire crowns and blowups work and the history of the Smokejumpers. Just starting the tragic story."
31.0% "Heating up...scary stuff"
02/10/2016 marked as: read
show 2 hidden updates…

No comments have been added yet.