Nineteen young firefighters were burned to death over the weekend in Arizona, and this morning we smell smoke from forest fires 900 kilometers from Montreal near James Bay in Northern Quebec. Both disquieting, an evidence again of the uneasy relation between fire and humans.
Norman Maclean, William Rainey Harper Professor of English at the University of Chicago and author of one of the best novels ever about Montana and the West, was marked by another forest fire disaster.
In 1949 when Maclean was in his early mid 40s, a crew of 15 elite Smokejumpers were trapped in an immense conflagration in Montana just hours after their jump. Only three survived, and for years afterwards Maclean was haunted by both the fire and what the young men must have gone through. His account, Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire, was published two years after his death in 1990. Long awaited, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992.
As an example of how to integrate research into creative non-fiction it has few peers. Maclean ferreted out the details of the young men's lives and placed them in context of the period. He also attempted to view their experience in the larger framework of our mortality. "It had been said since tragedy was first analyzed that it is governed by the emotions of fear and pity. As the Smokejumpers went up the hill...it was like a great jump backwards into the sky--they were suddenly and totally without command and suddenly without structure and suddenly free to disintegrate and free finally to be afraid...
"Beyond the world of sight and soon even beyond fear, the nonhuman elements of heat and toxic gasses were becoming the only two elements, and soon heat was even burning out fear..."
For anyone, old or young, who wonders about fire, the book is worth reading. But for those who would like to read Maclean at his height, I can't recommend too highly A River Runs through It and Other Stories. And the movie with Brad Pitt, directed by Robert Redford, isn't too bad.