The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America (Anglais) CD – Livre audio, 19 octobre 2009
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Revue de presse
"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
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Timothy Egan is a gifted writer who knows how to keep readers spellbound. I started reading the book yesterday "just to get a feel for it" and a few hours later couldn't put it down. He does a great job of pulling the reader into this subject, introducing the main characters of TR, Gifford Pinchot (first Chief Forest Servicer who met an early demise when Taft took over) and Bill Greeley (District Ranger), and all the wealthy New Yorkers who resented wild lands being put in reserves for future generations. In the background is John Muir, this country's first passionate nature advocate and preservationist.
TR created the Forest Service in 1905 and Congress passed the first laws for its agency. With the buffalo, grizzly bear and wolf practically killed off from most lands, the last great fear was the wildfire. History has proven that even in the young United States, a ravaging fire could wipe out entire families, entire towns. After a brutally cold and wet winter in early 1910, the weather warmed up, drying the forests of the eventual burn area by April. Over 1000 smaller fires were already burning by late July. By then Roosevelt was out of the White House and a new man, William Taft, his successor.
This book is divided into three parts: 'In on the Creation," which describes the characters who were for and against the creation of the Forest Service and the western lands; the young underpaid progressives who were picked by Pinchot to be the first forest rangers, and all the wealthy senators and businessmen who were opposed to open lands for the public. The first rangers were more than just office administrators (like they are today), but young men who had to endure a two day grueling exam to prove that they could survive in the wilderness, hunt and cook their own food and build thir own cabin. Part II describes in vivid detail the frantic attempt to recruit forest fire fighters among Westerners who were still more interested in logging, mining, hunting and whoring and opposing anyone and anything that would prevent them from doing so. But then those smaller 1000 forest fires bled into one humungous inferno in late August that ravaged so much of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana in a matter of two days. The actual fire is described starting in the chapter "Men, Men, Men!" on page 110 out of this 297 page book. Part III winds down with the postfire days and months in "What They Saved" with the realization that the Forest Service is a necessary evil for the landowners and corporations that do business from and in the wilderness. The reader sees how the complete story of all the characters falls into place.
Egan knows how to make popular history interesting without dragging down the story with too many details. Describing the people involved in this story is no easy feat, yet reading "The Big Burn" is excitingly fast, highly entertaining and most interesting. Egan does an extraordinary job describing the constant tug and pulls that were going on during Roosevelt and Taft's administrations between Congress and especially Senator Weldon Heyburn from Idaho, wealthy railroad owners and businessmen on one side, and the growing young progressives pushing for reform across the country on the other. The reader becomes familiar with all the corruption, crimes, lies and stalls that went on for years in the early 20th century between land owners and land conservationists. (Preserving land for public use was unheard of at a time when large corporations were given it free to exploit for its natural resources.) Add in the popular yellow press at the time and all the many social changes going on in the working class, the final product is a well written social history that deserves to be read, enjoyed and passed on. A reader who enjoys history will gain greater insight into all the behind the scenes bickering that went on not just because of the Big Burn, but in society as a whole. Many of those progressive changes are with us today.
This book is Timothy Egan at his best.
Roosevelt has left behind Gifford Pinchot to lead the conservation efforts of the nascent US Forest Service. Pinchot's efforts are underfunded and unpopular with influential senators, congressman and powerful industrial figures who want to leverage western timber and mineral reserves to enhance their personal empires. By the time the fire strikes, William Taft is serving ineffectually as president, essentially leaving Pinchot to do the best he can with what he has.
Timothy Egan lays out the political and historical scene setting in animated detail, providing well documented insights. He adds life and personality to the central players in the coming conflict between powerful people (with vastly differing agendas) and nature (with just one).
He then shifts to the fire itself. In 1910, the towns of the Bitterroots were populated by a diverse group of immigrants with social issues that could have come from today's op-ed pages. Writing about an influx of Italians, Egan says: "The Italian surge, in particular, angered those who felt the country was not recognizable, was overrun by foreigners, had lost its sense of identity. And they hated hearing all these strange languages, spoken in shops, schools and churches."
The events of this book take place at the intersection of many disruptive influences in America; railroads, telephone, freed blacks (the Buffalo Soldiers play a prominent role in the firefighting in this book). As we watch western fires threaten lives and property today, challenging even our advantages of aircraft (the US government owned two airplanes in 1910), communications and road transportation, it's hard to imagine the odds faced by those on the front lines in this book.
The final third of this book is an emotional look at hard men and women making hard choices in the face of fire fueled by dry timber and spread with hurricane-force Palouser wind. Some were deliberately heroic, others purely self-serving, and some simply met their end as they ran out of options while doing their duty. Egan captures the time and place with honesty and respect, and leaves you in awe of their pioneering spirit and the power of nature over humanity. The next time you see video of a woodland firefighter wielding a "Pulaski Axe", you'll appreciate its history...and know something about the man who gave it its name.
Timothy Egan (who last focused his writing talents on the dust bowl) does a good job of bringing this important event back alive. The book is (with a few exceptions discussed below) eminently readable, and he tells a good story--describing both the fire itself, and the political context vividly.
I do believe that the sub-title is a little overblown--the fire did not "save America", but arguably did save the concept of wilderness protection. That story is really the story of "spin"--the conservationists simply did a better job of selling their story. The narrative of heroic rangers battling a monster fire, despite having been under funded by timber barons for years--leading to wholly unnecessary lose of life. The timber companies had just as plausible story line: if the woods are going to be destroyed by fire anyway, doesn't it make sense to harvest the lumber in an economically productive manner? But did a terrible job of selling it.
My reservation is that the book is a little disorganized. The same story is told twice--in almost identical words--in the introduction, and then again in its chronological "place" in the story. Also, the book really doesn't come alive until the fire starts.
All in all, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the development of our system of national parks and forests.
Ostensibly, The Big Burn is about the great forest fire of 1910 in the Bitterroot Mountains between the Idaho Montana border. The prologue opens with the frantic evacuation of Wallace, ID right as the largest forest fire in American history consumes the frontier town. From there the story jumps back some 30 years to the first meeting of a young conservationist Gifford Pinchot and the then New York Governor Teddy Roosevelt. In lively prose Egan brings to life Pinchot and Roosevelt's relationship and their common cause to save the American wilderness. Egan pits their side against the Gilded Age Robber Barons of the West. Men bent on exploiting the lands harvest of timber for ruthless profit.
This book is a compelling read for anyone who loves the west, and this unique time in American history. Ironically the actual forest fire in 1910 in the Bitterroots is the weakest part of The Big Burn. The book would have been stronger if the fire was dealt with as a side story to Roosevelt and Pinchot's larger crusade to create the National Forests. Instead Egan ties these two political leaders to the 1910 fire, and then (as is stated in the subtitle) tries to argue that the "fire saved America". But in fact by 1910 both Roosevelt and Pinchot were out of office, and in the aftermath of the fire almost nothing was learned that would change the course of conservation or the forest system in the U.S. Unfortunately by the final chapter the book totally falls apart as Egan awkwardly tries to apply his larger lesson to the fire.
In the first third of the book Egan details how the service was created by Roosevelt as a part of his fight against the Trusts that were dominating politics and the economy, then how under the weak willed Taft these same Trusts were able to all but gut the system by cutting off funding. It is a picture of the corruption and influence of big business in the early 20th century and the efforts made to try and defeat them and their response.
Having set the scene the rest of the book details how the Rangers of the Forest Service were suddenly confronted with the biggest forest fire in history. This was not just the sort of burn we see today on the evening news. This was a confluence of conditions that would create what a later generation would call `the perfect storm' but not in rain and wind, but in fire, a firestorm whipped by hurricane force winds. Fire that didn't just burn national forests, but railroads, bridges roads and wiped entire towns off the map.
In exploring this oft overlooked element of American History in a fairly small space Egan brilliantly balances rich detail without overloading the reader with needless detail. He has a positive talent for choosing how to give a vivid description of people, their appearance, life and motivations within a few pages. Mostly this is spent on the Rangers who were on the forefront of the fight, against corruption and fire, as well as the politicians who champions and despised them, but also he gives insight into some of the men who took up a shovel for the cause.
Naturally the rangers are the heroes. The professionals who, though underpaid, under trained and virtually unsupplied who all the same did not shirk in their duties to face down a particularly horrible death. The book also details enough people, an Irish cook, Italian miners, a former Texas Ranger spring to mind, that you feel you really know the people who risked and in some cases gave, their lives for the conflict.
Egan's writing style flows effortlessly and you're scarcely aware of the pages turning in your hands. For anyone with an interest in American History, Conservation or just a love of the wilderness this book is an amazing read, being entertaining and educating at once.