REVIEW: “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean

  • Posted on: 10 March 2013
  • By: TedG

In a Publisher’s Note at the front of Young Men and Fire, the reader is told that Norman Maclean began working on the book in 1976 (“his seventy-fourth year”), after A River Runs Through It was published. The publisher’s note and some of Maclean’s writing in Young Men and Fire suggest a man taking an accounting of his life, but also fulfilling the need to tell a story that lingered in his mind for well over 40 years. The book seems to carry a great deal of baggage, not all of it being obviously connected to the story. So it seems appropriate to lay out a brief timeline of this story and Maclean’s own. 

1902––Norman Maclean is born. 

1905––The United States Forest Service is created by President Theodore Roosevelt. 

1917––Fifteen-year-old Norman Maclean goes to work fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service because there is a shortage of men available to do so, many of them being overseas fighting World War I. 

1940––The first parachute jump is made on a forest fire. 

1941––The U.S. Forest Service formally creates the position of smokejumper. 

1949––On a hot and windy day in the first week of August, sixteen smokejumpers drop into Mann Gulch, part of the Helena National Forest in Montana, to fight a wildfire. Thirteen of the men are killed when the fire unexpectedly intensifies and makes a run up the mountain while the men are moving down slope towards it.           

A week later, Maclean arrives at his cabin in Seeley Lake, Montana, near Missoula, and learns of the deaths. Another week or two later, he makes his first visit to Mann Gulch. 

1968––Maclean’s wife of 37 years, Jessie, dies. As she requested, her ashes are spread in a valley north of Mann Gulch. 

1976––Maclean begins researching and writing his story about the Mann Gulch tragedy, Young Men and Fire. 

1978––After locating and contacting two of the survivors, Maclean revisits Mann Gulch with them on 1 July. Maclean is 76 years old. 

1984––Maclean writes a preface to the book that gives the impression he is taking stock of his life. As the publisher notes, “Young Men and Fire was where … all the lives [Maclean] had lived would merge: woodsman, firefighter, scholar, teacher, and storyteller.” 

1990––Maclean dies at the age of 87. Young Men and Fire is unfinished. 

1992––The University of Chicago Press publishes the book. 

This timeline puts into perspective the close ties Maclean probably felt with the Forest Service and its firefighting history, as well as with the area in which the Mann Gulch tragedy occurred. He identifies with the dead men in many ways. He considers Montana a second home (he lived, worked, and raised his family in Chicago). And the symbolism of his wife being cremated and her ashes, like those of the men who were killed, being on the side of a mountain probably carries some emotional weight as well. These underlying motivations of Maclean’s may have something to do with the impressions our group took away from the book. He was obsessed with the story, said one. He included a lot of extraneous information; why include the interview with the retired fire investigator when it didn’t lead to any new information? And what was Part 3 for? Maclean waxes poetic in many parts of the book, but never more so than in Part 3. Was he searching for answers to more than just the story at hand? Or was he trying to form pertinent conclusions? 

I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. … Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death. 

Here again, Maclean’s motivations are muddled, and the reader is left wondering what we should take away from the story. So it was with our group. Though most thought the story was basically an interesting one, it was thick with detail and thin on purpose. Overall, the group gave it an average score of 3.7 out of 5 for Interest, but just 3 out of 5 for Readability. Few felt compelled to read another of Maclean’s book, though Art has read A River Runs Through It and thought it was better written than this book.