Norman MacLean inadvertently gave me one of my formative views on writing. I was in high school when "A River Runs Through It" came out. I don't remember much about it, fly-fishing not being my passion, but I remember a crusty newspaper editor saying to a young writer, "Good. Now half."
Good. Now half.
I carried that piece of wisdom around from that day on. So it seems interestingly circular that Young Men and Fire is really two books, and if halved, either could stand alone.
The first half is the story of the Mann Gulch fire: what the terrain is like, who the boys were, what smokejumping was like at that point. It includes a meticulous and heart-pounding timeline of how everything went so wrong, and the rescue efforts, such as they were. It is the classic disaster analysis narrative, but with some really beautiful prose, and a weird dreamlike recounting of MacLean's own firefighting experience.
As I was reading, I thought that I was glad I was not John MacLean, to try and cover the same ground his father had, but with less obvious mastery of the language. The elder man's writing is so sharp and vivid. "Here the fire rocked back and forth like a broadjumper before it started toward the takeoff. Then it jumped. One by one, other like fires reached the line, rocked back and forth, and they all made it."
"The black poles looked as if they had been born of the gray ashes as the result of some vast effort at sexual intercourse on the edges of the afterlife."
"There's nothing wrong with romanticism, except that sometimes it isn't enough."
Alone, this would be a near-perfect book (he gets a little distracted by prose sometimes).
The second half of the book is also fascinating, in a less whizz-bang way. It is the story of MacLean teaching himself investigative journalism late in life, in pursuit of this one story. It's about an old man and his need to understand what happened.
He fights through both literal and metaphorical obstacles, trying to track the paper trail, the minimal amount of data that was collected, the way processes were changed.
"Also genetically they like shady secrets and genetically they like to protect shady secrets but have none of their own. I gather that government organizations nearly always have this unorganized minority of Keepers of Unkept Secrets, and one of these, I was told, went so far as to write a letter to be read at a meeting of the staff of the regional forester reporting that I was making suspicious visits to Mann Gulch and reportedly and suspiciously arranging to bring back with me to Mann Gulch the two survivors of the fire."
"Scholars of the woods know that one of the best bibliographical reference works to consult is the postmistress of a nearby logging town."
He also went back to Mann Gulch over and over, trying to pace out the locations of the bodies, the fires. Imagine this old man, clambering awkwardly up the steep slope in the hot summer sun, trying to think what it had been like.
Eventually he trails off into the realm of math and science, studying how fast a fire travels in different fuels, what effect slope has, what we can now figure out and reconstruct.
Overall, it's a very hopeful story, that we can learn enough to prevent the same thing from happening over and over again.
"I said to myself, "Now we know, now we know." I kept repeating this line until I recognized that, in the wide world anywhere, "Now we know, now we know" is one of its most beautiful poems."
Read if: You are looking for evocative, mannered prose. You love fire stories and investigative reporting. You are on some kind of wildfire book kick as I obviously am.
Skip if: You are an impatient reader, in search of a plot. You will be bothered by trying to find meaning in a disaster. Philosophical noodling will make you nuts.