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.
"[A] tremendous tale of Progressive-era America .... Egan brings a touching humanity to this story of valor and cowardice in the face of a national catastrophe....'" - Publishers Weekly
"Starred Review. Essential for any Green bookshelf." - Kirkus Reviews
"Starred Review. Historians will enjoy Egan's well-written book....while general readers will find his suspenseful account of the fires mesmerizing." - Library Journal
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Rated of 5
The History of the Forest Service
This book is very detailed and often ponderous. I am sure it is well researched, however it goes into tremendous detail about the history of the Forest Service. The key players in establishing the Service and recounted in great detail. Unfortunately, the fire is described mostly in general terms with little drama. It seems to be a good history, however the story is choppy, and there is very little plot.
Timothy Egan is a national enterprise reporter for The New York Times and has a weekly column, "Outposts." He is the author of five books and the recipient of several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. The Worst Hard Time won the 2006 National Book Award in the nonfiction category. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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