©2009 Timothy Egan; (P)2009 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
There's always time for reading
I heard Timothy Egan interviewed on NPR about this book, so downloaded despite two early "2 star" reviews. I was glad I did. His book provides a fascinating history of the early conservation movement and the great fire of 1910 and the role it played in solidifying the Forest Service in the hearts and minds of Americans. BTW, it's a great companion read to "Roosevelt: Wilderness Warrior" which, sadly, is not available in audio format.
Timothy Egan's The Big Burn is the best sort of nonfiction book: a detailed and thoroughly researched examination of an interesting moment in history, made exciting and lively by the way the author structures the narrative. The Big Burn reads like one of those great disaster movies of the 70s, introducing a range of characters, great and humble, connecting them to an ominous disaster, and then following each of their stories to the thrilling conclusion.
Unlike disaster movies of the 70s, though, The Big Burn will provoke thought and discussion about what has changed and what hasn't changed--politically, environmentally, and socially--in America in the hundred years since the events took place.
Robertson Dean's deep, rich voice has a weight and substance suited to the text, and he even lends a touch of acting and dialect in extensive citations from the writings of historical figures.
I generally listen to fiction from Audible, and the Big Burn was as entertaining and engaging as any novel, with a great deal more substance and food for conversation.
This is an very good book, but an excellent listen. The story is captivating and uplifting as both success and tragedy. The mix of personal adventure and non-wonky political analysis work very well at oral pace. The flaws in the writing (see, e.g., the New York Times review), such as the author's tendency toward over-dramatic or breathless prose, turn out to be little or no problem when listening rather than reading. (You notice the phrases that seem comical out of context if you look for them, but only if you look for them. Otherwise, they glide right by.) Dean's narration is near perfect, and adds much to what is already a very good book. I would definitely recommend this book, and make the rarely-deserved recommendation that listening is much better than reading. The book is such an inspiration that if it were not winter right now, I would be off exploring the locales from the book rather than taking time to write this.
I worked for the Forest Service in Idaho in the 1980's, fought many forest fires, knew Ed Pulaski's heroic story, and especially loved working with the tool he invented, the pulaski. Egan is a terrific story teller and gets everything right, both the feeling and the facts about this time and place. I especially appreciated learning about Gifford Pinchot and how he and TR fought for and finally triumphed in establishing the Forest Service. The Big Burn is American history told at its best.
I mostly listen to books while exercising, which pretty much explains all of the action/thrillers on my list.
Vintage Timothy Egan. Don't start it if you are already in a bad mood because it will just rile you up again as you see the parallels to the recent financial collapse. The rich and greedy pull out all the stops to try to prevent the creation of the National Forests and it takes a combo of Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, plus many more, to make it happen. And then, of course, we know it has been perennially undermined after the fact by the same 1% that tried to stop it in the first place. But this story at least gives you glimpses into what drove the people who dreamed the dream and of course makes heroes of them all.
Egan's book, though non-fiction, is constructed like a great Hollywood movie: introducing the characters and getting us to care about them before dropping them into the unfolding disaster. I knew little about America from the years between the Civil War and World War I, but the many colorful anecdotes about Teddy Roosevelt alone have got me searching for a great biography on that president.
I found this to be a real "page-turner" for me; I was making time to listen, and listening in situations I usually don't because I was so caught up in the narrative, particularly the detailed accounts of human bravery and tragedy on those fateful days of August 20th and 21st, 1910. Egan researched this material thoroughly, and it shows. Robertson Dean's narration, in his magnificent baritone, is classy.
I've now consumed 50 books on Audible, and this is probably my second favorite, after Shadow Divers.
The Perfect Storm is like The Big Burn. The difference is that The Big Burn includes historical persons and how the Federal government abandoned the rangers of the early days of the U.S. Forest Service at their time of greatest need.
There is a point when the last train out was full and those that could not get on realized they were probably not going to survive. It is tempting to think this is a fictional story. If the government did even half of the things they did in this book the people would demand that someone be criminally charged.
The Big Burn has been a frequent topic of conversation among my circle of late, as the current conditions in Montana, where I live, and the other Western states are frequently compared to those in 1910 - the year of the Big Burn. Then, as luck would have it, this title was among 100 titles offered in a surprise snap sale at audible.com (a sale that ends when you close your browser). So, I picked it up.
As soon as I started listening to it, I questioned the wisdom of listening to it at this particular time as I am already suffering from anxiety concerning the conditions for massive wild fires. As I began listening, that feeling deepened. You see, I learned that our current conditions are actually far WORSE than those of June 1910. That June was rainless in both years the present year and 1910 have in common. However, winter of 1909-1910, I learned, was a winter of above average snowfall. There was deep snow pack. The book describes Wallace, ID as having 10 feet of snow on the valley floor. Last winter, by contrast, the Northwest received very little snow and areas that should still be under snow pack in early June were not just devoid of snow, but also already completely dried out. Our current conditions are worse. Far worse.
And yet, our current conditions are better. In 1910, the National Forest Service was a brand new agency and conservation was a new concept, oft derided and vehemently combated by industrialists. The Forest Service had very little staff, and even less funding - so much so that Forest Service rangers bought their own gear, uniforms, boots, horses, etc. Prior to the Big Blow Up (yes, we capitalize those words in my neck of the woods), there were 2500 fires burning in the NW and, even after nabbing would-be miners off of trains, emptying the jails to put men to work on fires and deploying the Buffalo Soldiers, there was less than 1 (un-trained in fire fighting) fire fighter per fire. In that regard, current conditions are better, as there are thousands of trained fire fighters, heavy equipment, airplanes and helicopters - and roads. Yes, roads. Roads by which to access fires, build fire lines, etc.
But this book, and indeed the aftermath of the Big Burn, is not all about the many fires and the Big Blowup firestorm that consumed 3.2 million acres, though that is a dramatic tale all by itself. This book relates the history of the creation of the National Forest Service, its early years under its first chief, Gifford Pinchot, and enthusiastically supported by President Teddy Roosevelt, then its decline and near termination in any practical sense under President Taft - and then how the fire of 1910 illustrated the importance of the agency, leading to not only the growth of the agency, but also, and most importantly, to the growth of the concept of conservation in the United States. It might be said that the fires of 1910 saved the forests, kindled widespread support for the concept of conservation and, thus, preserved the character of our land. It might also be said that the subtitle of this book is a bit misleading as, while Teddy Roosevelt is one of my heroes and was surely instrumental, and had the position to affect great changes, he was surely not alone in the cause for conservation.
Most striking in the work are the nuggets of personal diaries and logs, correspondence and official dispatches as they establish the character of the men involved and the time. As those are the real gems of the book, much as I'm tempted to include a quote to illustrate, I won't - it's best that the reader or listener come upon them without them having been spoiled. Just one hint: the very untypical love affair that Gifford Pinchot carried on for much of his life would have kept the gossip columns busy were he to have been a prominent man in our time.
Most heartrending is the way in which our government failed to compensate the families of those who died in the attempt to preserve national resources as well as those who were horribly and permanently injured. I'm not talking about the lack of settlements for injuries, though that would be bad enough. Men were literally pressed into service and then didn't receive any medical treatment for their wounds because they were unable to pay for doctors and hospitals and our government refused. Forest Service staff did take up collections, but they were poorly paid and had shallow pockets. Families received no compensation - not even burial expenses - for those lost in the fire.
The name Ed Pulaski has, in the years since, become legendary. However, he never received needed eye surgery to improve the vision loss he suffered in the fire. In fact, he couldn't even take sick leave to recover from his wounds as there was no sick leave pay. He wasn't even able to pay for legal assistance to patent the tool he designed for use by fire fighters. His tool is his legacy as much as is the lives he saved, but that tool earned him no money.
Exciting, well read, cleverly told tale of Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire Service Rangers who fought the Great Fire of 1910 and the reactionaries who wanted to rape the common land for their own benefit.
Highly recommended. I couldn't turn it off! And, of course, I bought the paper version as well. Will probably send a copy to all 5 of my kids.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this. It is a long narrative of an incredible event in our history. I am a Am. Hstory fan and I never knew this story. The book develops a great Progressive story of our development of our Forestry Service and of the tragic fire in our Northwest, that solidified its existence.
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