Books: The Big Burn

I read this at the recommendation of ModestyPress, who called it “a non-fiction book with great narrative drive that holds my interest and attention like a fine novel.” For a book on history it kept my attention reasonably well, but I did have to push myself to keep reading sometimes.

Part of the problem, from my point of view, is that it is two different stories combined in one book. Even the author, Timothy Egan, acknowledges this (see Q&A on the book’s page, though he doesn’t see it as a drawback. It is the story of the beginning of the U.S. Forest Service, championed by Teddy Roosevelt and Gordon Pinchot. It is also the story of the nation’s biggest forest fire, which destroyed a forested area the size of Connecticut in two days in August 1910.

I found the information about Roosevelt’s and Pinchot’s efforts to promote conservation very interesting, as I never really had much idea how the conservation movement started. By the time I was growing up, conservation as an ideal was firmly established. People seemed to take the idea of national and state parks for granted; the problems were usually over the effects of human behavior that spilled over from inhabited areas to wilderness areas.

Some of the reviews I read of Egan’s book criticize him for making the struggle too black-and-white. His Roosevelt and Pinchot are heroes, and the timber barons are villains. I would have been interested in learning more of the economics involved. As Egan relates, eventually – after the fire – the Forest Service did allow a great deal of clear-cut logging on federal lands. How much of that was the result of corruption, how much poor leadership in the Forest Service, and how much just recognizing the economic reality of the situation?

I found the details of the fire less compelling. Egan follows the stories of several men, and I found it hard to keep the stories and personalities of Koch, Weigle, Pulaski, Halm, and others straight in my head. Egan also relates many small details, which to some extent helps breathe life into history, but sometimes seems excessive.

Unlike with his previous book, about the Dust Bowl, Egan had to rely on documents rather than talking to people who had experienced the events he wrote about. I got the impression that the information he was able to gather was sparse enough that Egan included everything he had. I would have preferred that he tell the story of fewer people in depth, and I could have followed their stories better.

On the whole, though, it’s a very informative book and surprisingly readable, considering that the subject matter did not in itself appeal to me all that much.


One Response to Books: The Big Burn

  1. modestypress says:

    Our library each year nominate a book for its “If everybody on Whidbey Island read the same book…” program. I am on the selection committee, and I am recommending the selection of this book. Our island is heavily forested, and our house is situated in thick woods. At the moment, they seem very wet and green, but the island has had forest fires in the past, so this book perhaps help my attention because I could visualize flames threatening our house.

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