Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Big Burn

The Big Burn is Timothy Egan's account of the largest wildfire to occur during historic times in North America. The fire devastated a large swath of the northern Rocky Mountains and adjacent areas of Canada in August 1910.  It is also the story of the creation of the national forest system by Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt.  Egan claims (in his subtitle) that it was the fire that saved America - a claim as overblown as his prose recounting the fire.

The book is divided into three sections.  Part I, "In on the Creation," is the story of the progressive movement's attempt to wrest control of the Western forests from the industrial privateers of the Gilded Age who were abetted by the United States Congress.  Part II, "What They Lost," describes the horrific fires that coalesced in August 1910 into a cataclysmic conflagration that took over a hundred lives.  Part III, "What They Saved," explores the aftermath of the fire and its effect on national politics.  The book begins with a Prologue, "A Fire at the End of the World," that sets up the story to follow.

Oddly, I found the middle section of the book - the account of the fire - to be least compelling part of the book.  It is too long, too repetitive, and too redundant of the prologue.  Egan never found a simile, metaphor, adjective, or adverb related to fire that he didn't love, and he throws in every one he can find.  My comment above about "cataclysmic conflagration" is tame in comparison with some of his overheated prose.

I very much more enjoyed his examination of the important players, especially Roosevelt, Pinchot, and President Taft, and the newly-minted Forest Service rangers.  Egan also paints a compelling portrait of the lawless towns that sprouted on the frontier in the early 19th century, though even here he can carry-on and I wondered sometimes if he was exaggerating.  The last section of the book begins to rebuild on some of the strengths of the first section, but Egan makes claims that are a bit of a stretch about the long-term impact of the fire on American politics.


Grizz………… said...

I've read some other things Egan's written, and your assessment and remarks re. his writing pretty much illustrates his style throughout everything.

Years ago, a really fine novelist told me, the more horrific or violent the scene, the "flatter" the prose you employ to describe. You convey such scenes with good description—tiny, telling details, pace, and most of all, chillingly straight, direct writing.

The problem Egan creates is, do you separate the writing from the story? Overblown prose aside—is the story accurate? Or is the recounting as inflated and false as the telling?

You got me. But I can tell you one thing, a lot of modern Forest Service policies, including the politics that shaped them, DID NOT come directly out of that 1910 fire. I haven't read the book (and likely won't) but I seriously doubt that fire—big and ruinous as it was—had nearly the long-range implications the author claims. I expect he's, instead, trying to stir up more of a story than the facts warrant. Good for sales, perhaps—but poor reporting and bad history.

Scott said...

Grizz, I haven't read any of Egan's other work, but I probably won't either. I don't know enough about the fire to say whether or not the book reflects "poor reporting and bad history," but he certainly is guilty of violating the "flat prose in the service of horror" edict.

One troubling aspect of the fire that has influenced Forest Service policy ever since "the" fire (and continuing today) is the proportion of the service's budget devoted to wildfire suppression (currently a scandalous 50%, I believe). Of course, as more and more Americans move into the urban-wildland interface, the service is going to be hard pressed to cut back on firefighting expenditures.

Thanks for your insights; I appreciate them.