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The Big Burn - Book Review

Essay by   •  November 3, 2011  •  Book/Movie Report  •  1,548 Words (7 Pages)  •  2,180 Views

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Smokey Bear would have been awfully lonely in 1910. Kicked out of town and even shot dead, forest rangers and fire fighters were among the most hated to walk the woodland. How's that for irony? Lacking necessary support, the fire fighters stood no chance against Mother Nature's blazing ways. Timothy Egan brings these courageous men into the limelight, which they so greatly deserve. His narrative is a work of genius which turns boring history facts into an enthralling tale nearly impossible to put down. As the story bounces from the true account of the fire to the political debate over the forest service, the reader becomes captivated by both exceptionally detailed plots, and is left satisfied as they slowly tie into one. Egan focuses on America for the little man, embracing Roosevelt and Pinchot's idea that conservation should be using our natural resources for the greatest good, greatest number, and greatest amount of time. As inspiring a creed as it may seem, it proves to be even more challenging to accomplish.

This masterpiece of a novel comes to the reader courtesy of Timothy Egan. Born November 8, 1954, he claims that he reflects the Western views, yet has recently turned into a liberal. Today, he can still be found living in his home town of Seattle Washington. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Egan isn't new to the literature game either. Writing a weekly column for the New York Times called Outposts, Egan has also written five books. The most recent of the works being The Worst Hard Time, an account in which the Depression-era families refused to flee the Dust Bowl. It won a National Book Award for nonfiction, was named a New York Times Editor's choice, and a New York Times Notable Book, proving that Egan has a talent for capturing the real accounts of natural disasters (Back cover).

The Big Burn doesn't focus heavily on one period of time or one person's journey throughout the years. Rather, this book tells two different stories in a chronological approach. The plots intertwine as most events occur simultaneously. The reader will encounter many characters, both political and nature lovers, over the course of over one hundred years. Throughout the 324 pages, Egan covers events from around 1890 until 2005. He does an impressive job keeping a satisfying flow from plot line to plot line while remaining non discriminate author. Egan is able to retell the stories of unknown men and women with the same enthusiasm which he uses to recount the tales of historic personages. Told in a personal way, he creates a moving and relatable novel which leaves the reader satisfied, as well as proud to be an American.

There are many plots and subplots whirling around throughout the book. Teddy Roosevelt is the first character presented, and is done so as an energetic soul with an endless zest for life who "burned 2,000 calories before noon and drank his coffee with seven lumps of sugar," (86). Contrarily, Gifford Pinchot was "a man of many moods, many calculations," (25). Pinchot was a number of things, but boring was not one of them. This dynamic duo was a powerhouse that could rarely be stopped. Not only best friends, but the two men were business partners as well. They gradually carved the idea of conservation into the heart of America, along with John Muir, trying to take lumber companies down. Year after year of fighting, Roosevelt was finally able to reserve 180 million acres of Northwest Forest land for the national forest. Together with Pinchot, he built the National Forest Service to supervise it all. As time went on, the National Forest Service became increasingly unpopular, and traitors like those in Congress or President Taft became supporters of lumberjacking. But little did they know, the biggest fire in history would soon engulf the entire Northwest. A collection of some 3,000 separate forest fires and having energy of a palouser (intense wind created by the geography of the Northwest), this blaze destroyed 3 million acres of forest in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The fire harmed five towns and took over 100 lives of the 10,000 firefighters who fought it. Unexpected and seemingly unreal as it was, it proved to all of the disbelievers that nature was finally worth fighting for.

Thanks to Egan's work, I have found a new appreciation for the Forest Service. The Big Burn has become an important cautionary tale about natural resource policy. This piece of work has brought much needed attention to the debate over fire prevention in the wilderness. Egan takes



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