Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Book Review

I expect I was wheeling my bike through the tourists, guzzling on my choco-milk after a session in the gym. Those book stalls under Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank get me everytime. This one must have jumped at me, out of the titles and authors streaming by, me the fly.

I’m sure it was because I’d read Norman Maclean before – A River Runs Through It, the story of Montana fly-fishing. But the title also intrigued me; Young Men and Fire. It wasn’t until I’d parted with my £3.50 and began reading just recently that I really discovered how intrigued I would become.

Other reviews will offer you a
better description of the story and more evocative excerpts, but I’ll concentrate less on the story and more on the storytelling. The story is the events of 5th August 1949 when 12 USFS smokejumpers died on a fire in Mann Gulch, Montana, and Maclean’s exploits to understand the tragic events years later. The telling is part story, part history,part science.

“Historical questions the storyteller must face, although in a place of his own choosing, but his most immediate question as he faces new material is always, Will anything strange or wonderful happen here? The rights and wrongs come later and likewise the scientific know how.”

The first third of the book is the story of the tragedy. It’s only later that the detective story begins, where we start “… examining how all the little cockeyed things all fit together to explain one big cockeyed thing”. This is where Maclean begins to suggest that not only did the events of the day happen because ‘everything was just right’ but that the route to discovering what happened also depends on everything being ‘just right’. The process of discovering is often as historically contingent as the history.

Maclean describes his ‘ah-ha!’ moment, his ‘eureka!’, when he thought “that’s funny”. On a boat trying to piece the bits of puzzle together in his mind of how and why those men got caught by the fire, he sees a wave on the water ‘going the wrong way’. Or rather, going in a direction he wasn’t expecting because of the winds that come and go.

Wind is the whip of the fire, spurring it on, pointing the way. The winds on the day of the fire all came together at the right time across the unique topography of the gulch to cause a ‘blowup’, an explosion of fire throwing flames tens of metres high and accelerating fire spread to speeds faster than a man can run. Faster even than a man running for his life.

Everything that had to fit that day did fit that day – but the evidence of those conditions may still be observed in the broader patterns of the landscape that are shaped by the prevailing winds. Processes acting at different rates and extents leave their evidence at different rates and extents. Maclean saw those patterns one day by chance and thought “that’s funny”.

So just as the tragedy was dependent upon “everything fitting together”, so too is the path or route to discovery? The patterns are there but they must coincide with our observation for us to understand? Or is this just the way we tell the story of discovery, linearizing the complex web of our thought processes? How can we know what subconscious links are being made when we think “that’s funny”? Or is the most important skill knowing when “that’s funny” really is funny?

The scientist in the storytelling is Richard C. Rothermel, he of mathematical fire modelling fame. Maclean asks for Rothermel’s help to use his mathematical models to plot the race between the young men and fire on the axes of distance and time. Maclean seems reasonably confident with results of the model – the numbers seem to fit with his qualitative understanding of the events. But he’s not totally convinced by the numbers alone. Just as fire requires the triangle of heat, fuel and oxygen, the events and his understanding of them require story, history and science;

“We are beyond where arithmetic can explain what was happening in the piece of nature that had been the head of Mann Gulch … Near the end of many tragedies it seems right that there should be moments when the story stops and looks back for something it left behind and finds it and finds it because of the things it learned, as it were, by having lived through the story.”

Young Men and Fire is quintessentially ‘Direction not Destination’. The route to discovery is important. The modelling is as important as the model. Hindsight is a wonderful thing because of contingency and history. But hindsight is also painful; it allows us to understand the tragedies that befell the young, who could not see it until it was upon them.

_____________________________________

Maclean, N (1992) Young Men and Fire Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0226500624

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