The Big Burn
The Big Burn
Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America
By Timothy Egan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover, 9780618968411, 336pp.
Publication Date: October 1, 2009
In THE WORST HARD TIME, Timothy Egan put the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl at the center of a rich history, told through characters he brought to indelible life. Now he performs the same alchemy with the Big Burn, the largest-ever forest fire in America and the tragedy that cemented Teddy Roosevelt's legacy in the land.
On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno that jumped from treetop to ridge as it raged, destroying towns and timber in an eyeblink. Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men -- college boys, day-workers, immigrants from mining camps -- to fight the fires. But no living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the rangers nor anyone else knew how to subdue them.
Egan narrates the struggles of the overmatched rangers against the implacable fire with unstoppable dramatic force, through the eyes of the people who lived it. Equally dramatic, though, is the larger story he tells of outsized president Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot did nothing less than create the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by every citizen. The robber barons fought him and the rangers charged with protecting the reserves, but even as TR's national forests were smoldering they were saved: The heroism shown by those same rangers turned public opinion permanently in favor of the forests, though it changed the mission of the forest service with consequences felt in the fires of today.
THE BIG BURN tells an epic story, paints a moving portrait of the people who lived it, and offers a critical cautionary tale for our time.
"Egan brings a touching humanity to this story of valor and cowardice in the face of a national catastrophe, paying respectful attention to Roosevelt's great dream of conservation and of an America 'for the little man.'" -Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Essential for any Green bookshelf." -Kirkus Reviews, starred review"Historians will enjoy Egan’s well-written book, featuring sparkling and dynamic descriptions of the land and people, as a review of Roosevelt’s conservation ideas, while general readers will find his suspenseful account of the fires mesmerizing." -- Library Journal"Egan tells the story with great humanity . . . In prose so sizzling it crackles, The Big Burn keeps alive the conservation dreams of Teddy Roosevelt by allowing this story to rise from the ashes, once again." -- Denver Post"[Egan] has already proved himself to be a masterly collector of memorable stories. His new book, The Big Burn, continues in the same tradition . . . What makes The Big Burn particularly impressive is Egan’s skill as an equal-opportunity storyteller. By this I mean that he recounts the stories of men and women completely unknown to most of us with the same fervor he uses to report the stories of historic figures . . . Even as we mark the centennial of this great fire, wildfires in the West continue to burn. It makes this book which is a masterwork in every sense worthy of a very careful reading." -- Christian Science Monitor"[Egan] is at the top of his game . . . An important cautionary tale for these days that also reads like a classic adventure story." -- Washington Times"Egan is a gorgeous writer. His chapters on the 'blowup'... should become a classic account of an American Pompeii." -- BookPage"Muir called Pinchot 'someone who could relish, not run from a rainstorm' -- a phrase that also describes The Big Burn's narrator. For as long as Egan keeps chasing storms, whether of dust, fire, rain or snow, you'd be smart to call shotgun." -- Los Angeles Times"Few writers have the Pulitzer Prize-winning Egan's gift for transforming history lessons into the stuff of riveting page-turners... Don't miss this one. Grade: A." -- Entertainment Weekly
Author Timothy Egan argues in The Big Burn that the forest fire of 1910 — the largest in American history — actually saved the forests, even as its flames charred the trees. It helped rally public support, Egan explains, behind Theodore Roosevelt's push to protect national lands. More at NPR.org
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