Young Men and Fire Essay - Critical Essays

Young Men and Fire

Bookshelves could be filled with volumes exploiting tragedies in grim detail. This book is not one of them. Maclean’s obsession with the Mann Gulch Fire led him to investigate it as fully as possible for one who was not present when the tragedy occurred, and who looked back over decades to seek its truth. But his investigation and his narrative both are marked by reverence and respect for the young men who died on the fiery hell of a mountainside.

Maclean begins with a story of his own experience outrunning a forest fire as a young volunteer firefighter, an incident that links him to the fates of the thirteen young men who died at Mann Gulch. Following this preview of his experience, chapter 1 introduces the Smokejumpers, an elite crew of young men who volunteered to parachute onto forest fires which they expected to contain by the following morning.

From general history to the specific lives of the smokejumper crew who tackled Mann Gulch, Maclean spends the next few chapters alternating between a narrative of what happened after the crew landed, based on later testimony, and explanations of normal firefighting procedures at that time. Through the course of the book, the mechanics of fire and how to fight it are as intimately explained as the particulars of the Mann Gulch blaze.

Maclean brings two of three survivors back to Mann Gulch to remember events and exact locations of the race with death, and talks to fire experts on the “blow-up” responsible for the deaths. He resolves finally the questions that occasioned a class-action lawsuit: Did Foreman Dodge’s escape fire kill the smokejumpers as they ran for safety? Did they have a chance?

Sources for Further Study

Audubon. XCIV, November, 1992, p. 126.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, July, 1992, p. 1898.

Chicago Tribune. August 16, 1992, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 10, 1992, p. 11.

Library Journal. CXVII, August, 1992, p. 127.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 6, 1992, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, August 16, 1992, p. 1.

Newsweek. CXX, October 12, 1992, p. 87.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, June 29, 1992, p. 48.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, August 23, 1992, p. 2.