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Book Review of: The Big Burn

Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America

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Review of The Big Burn, by Timothy Egan (Softcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

Engaging and informative, this book makes a fine addition to anyone's history library. Egan has raised the bar in this genre. His writing is masterful.

Maybe it's just an illusion, but it seemed the tone of this book is patterned after the subject matter. There's a little spark and kindling at first. It's warm and inviting, just as a small fire is. Then the story blazes to life, and as the reader you are caught up in it and feel the full intensity of its heat.

Though Roosevelt, mentioned in the subtitle, was the most famous person in this book, other figures are of historical significance. For example, Ed Pulaski is prominent in the book and is famous in certain circles. Ask any forest ranger about Ed Pulaski or the tool Pulaski invented. If you've been to Las Vegas, you probably know it's in Clark County. That county is the namesake of a prominent figure in this book.

Perhaps the second largest figure in this book, though, is Gifford Pinchot. Incidentally, Pinchot was born at about the end of the American War of Succession (incorrectly called the Civil War in history books though it did not meet the definition of a civil war--which is a war for taking over the means of government rather than attempting to leave it) and died at about the end of World War II. He was really the force behind the conservation movement. John Muir, also famous for conservation, lacked Pinchot's political skill. Without Pinchot, it's unlikely we'd have national parks today. And for sure we wouldn't have park rangers. The original lead rangers, in fact, were called "Little GP's. " Thanks to GP, Roosevelt established the Park Service in 1905.

Integral to the story of the big fire of 1910 is the story of the Park Service. Some big business folks wanted to make big money by denuding and destroying the nation's forests for the lumber. To protect their interests, they did then what their descendants do today: buy and sell members of CONgress, plus presidents (Taft, back then) and others in positions of authority.

I like a sign that's on Dr. Ron Paul's desk: "Don't steal. The government doesn't like competition." The battle over the "right" to steal and to use the federal government as the tool of theft was intense during the time in which this story occurred. Given this, it's amazing to me that Egan stayed on the story at hand. He could have used the story of the Big Burn (and the background intrigues) to comment on current events, but didn't. He told the story as accurately and objectively as he could, leaving out any proselytizing for particular political views. Yes, he did talk a bit about the big social programs launched by T.R. (and later pushed more by his cousin FDR), but only as statements of fact. Kudos!

Thanks to all the chicanery and greed, the Park Service was underfunded. The funding games were the primary means by which the lumber grabbers sought to kill off the Park Service as part of a larger scheme to remove the forests from the public domain.

What happened in 1910 was a "perfect storm" of events that led to a fire so massive that it released more energy than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It destroyed millions of acres of forest, huge swaths of land larger than several New England states.

A nearly snowless winter followed by a nearly rainless summer left the trees and brush excessively dry. This created a situation in which there were hundreds of little fires all over the place. The rangers went about putting these out. But then an unusual wind condition arose. When dry timber and small fires get hit by a massive hurricane-level wind, the result is an enormous conflagration like the one that hit in 1910. Egan does a great job of describing this fire, referring to how it jumped over long distances, shot up 100+ ft columns of flame, created its own wind vortexes, and so forth. As long as it can reach fuel, it's an unstoppable force. The rangers had no way of knowing this, at the time.

Egan created a narrative from the various historical accounts, and provides just enough detail to keep the story moving and not so much that it bogs down. Writing about a century after the fact, Egan wasn't able to interview eye witnesses. Surely much of the material he combed through was aggrandized over time and many important facts were lost, altered, or created from broadcloth. But he did his homework (it takes almost 20 pages to list his sources) and everything fits together into a narrative that is as accurate as possible. And he tells it so well!

This book runs about 300 pages. It's preceded by a note from the author and then a Prologue, both obviously well thought out. The book consists 19 chapters arranged into 3 Parts, followed by an extensive list of sources, acknowledgements, and an index.

Part I consists of 5 chapters, and it's here that Egan describes how TR and Pinchot started the conservation movement. He then moves on to give us a real feel for the challenges they faced. The opposition was intense, and how these two men answered those challenges is a great story in itself.

Part II is the story of the fire. As it's the core of the book, this story occupies 11 chapters. Here, we learn about how many small fires turned into one colossal, raging, consuming inferno. We read about heroes, cowards, and those in between. We sense, not just read about, the fear, disorientation, desperation, and hope that arose in the various people. We feel the tragedy and the loss, too.

Part III consists of only 3 chapters. This is the story of what happened after the fire. Part of that story includes the federal government's utter disregard toward the rangers and civilians severely injured by the fire. Part of it is following up on what happened with various people who played key roles during the fire. And part of it is just bringing an excellent book to a proper end.

I'd never heard of Timothy Egan prior to reading this book. Now I want to read his other books. Maybe I'll start with his previous one, "The Worst Hard Times," which was about the Dust Bowl.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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