Reporting the disaster that entered region's psyche

September 27, 1992|By Mike Bowler

YOUNG MEN & FIRE.

Norman Maclean.

University of Chicago.

301 pages. $19.95. Not since Ted Turner and Jane Fonda invaded the state and started running buffalo has Montana's cultural world been so atwitter.

First there was The Book -- Norman Maclean's elegiac "A River Runs Through It," a 104-page semi-autobiographical gem published by the University of Chicago Press in 1976.

"River," a work about fly-fishing in western Montana and family relationships and violence and death, ran underground for a long time. But this little book, with its wonderful opening sentence -- "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing" -- was bound to reach the wider literary world. We Montanans (and others), who had been proselytizing "River" for years, reveled in its well-earned success.

Maclean, a retired University of Chicago professor who had completed the book (actually a trilogy) at 73, died a couple of years ago, but not before Robert Redford talked him into allowing the film star to make a movie of "River." That occurred, with much fanfare, last year in and about Livingston, Mont., far from the polluted Blackfoot River, where Maclean, his brother and father actually fished. (Mr. Redford pledged the proceeds of the film's Sept. 19 premiere in Bozeman, Mont., to cleaning up the Blackfoot.) Esquire and Smithsonian are among magazines that have published articles about "River" -- the film, the book, the author, the actor and producer. We "River" enthusiasts were overjoyed, though we worried that such a poetic work would be transmogrified on film.

Now comes "Young Men & Fire." Essentially Norman Maclean's epilogue, this unfinished work (actually "finished" by family and editors) is about a 1949 forest fire in Mann Gulch, north of Helena, that took the lives of 13 smokejumpers.

"Young Men & Fire" is a thoroughly researched mystery. It delves into the fire, how it started and spread, how the smokejumpers approached it, parachuted into it, confronted a "blowup" -- a terrifying conflagration that occurs rarely in forest fires -- and ran for their lives. Most didn't make it.

Three survived, the two youngest men and the crew chief, who had the presence of mind to light his own fire and lie in it, face down, until the main fire rumbled over him. (Blowups sound like freight trains, and Maclean devotes page after page to the sounds and sights and taste and smell of the forest fire.) Maclean, who calls himself a "forensic woodsman," visited the site numerous times, at least once accompanied by the two young survivors. (The crew chief died of Hodgkin's Disease five years after the disaster.)

The author developed his own theories about what happened that August day, about the "three winds" on the nearby Missouri River that contributed to the blowup on one of the hottest days in Montana history. There are maps and photographs to illustrate what Maclean calls "the world of slow-time [in which] truth and art are found as one." Maclean, a master of words, speaks of the heat and loneliness experienced by the firefighter. Dying in a fire, says, "is something like drowning."

Every region of the country has its potential disasters, and a region's special disaster becomes part of its psyche: hurricanes in Florida, tornadoes in the Midwest, floods elsewhere. In Montana it is the forest fire. I remember this one vividly. It occurred on my eighth birthday. We were 23 miles away, and the smoke rising from Mann Gulch cast a pall on my town. (Maclean points out that it was literally a funeral pyre. Thirteen crosses stand in the gulch where each man fell.) To this day, Mann Gulch is the greatest disaster in the history of the Forest Service (in loss of life), and Maclean speculates that lessons learned in the fire saved many lives in years to come.

Unfortunately, "Young Men & Fire" becomes redundant after the dramatic visit to Mann Gulch by Maclean and the two survivors. From midpoint, it reads like a padded term paper, as if the editors were determined to stretch the book beyond 300 pages.

There are better books dealing with forest fires and their symbolism. Richard Ford's 1990 "Wildlife," set in and around Great Falls, Mont., is one.

Maclean himself has written with more verve about the early years of the Forest Service. His "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky" is the often overlooked but well-worth-reading third story in the original "River" trilogy.

But occasionally in "Young Men & Fire," Maclean demonstrates his remarkable understanding of the relationship among humans, their spiritual life and their natural surroundings. The universe according to Norman Maclean has four elements -- sky, earth, fire and young men. The four are intertwined in this last earthly work by one of America's most talented 20th century writers.

L Mr. Bowler is editor of The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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