Book review: Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean

For anyone fascinated with firefighting, Young Men and Fire by the author of A River Runs Through It, is a must-read. MacLean's account of how and why 13 Forest Service Smokejumpers met their fate on the Mann Gulch Fire, August 5th, 1949, will have you turning page after page with his captivating narrative of the days leading up to the fire, the fateful day, and subsequent events.

The crew boss didn't think the Mann Gulch Fire was a big deal. Easy. They'd take their time, have it out in time for dinner.  Instead, over a dozen firefighters were burned alive or so severely injured, they later died. So what went wrong? MacLean wanted to know. He spent 14 years of his life finding out everything he could about that fire, and why so many lives were lost. He interviewed survivors, poured through Forest Service documentation, and talked to fire experts, to piece together the tragedy.

I found this book both fascinating, and emotionally taxing. Reading how these men lost their lives is chilling, and not for the weak. You will never think about death by fire in the same way again.

Reading about the bravery and sacrifice of others reminds me how much I loved my work not only because of the prestige, excitement and gratification, but because it fulfilled me in a way no other job ever has. My life had purpose.

Young Men and Fire
University of Chicago Press
October 1st, 1992

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