Monday, March 5, 2012

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

In The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, Timothy Egan reports on the fires that destroyed the forests of the American west in 1910 and on Theodore Roosevelt's determination to set aside the great national forests as a public trust. Egan also introduces us to Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester, and Ed Pulaski, another important name in the history of American forests and fires. He gives us background on the first forest rangers and describes how overmatched they were against a forest fire unlike any that had been seen before.

The Big Burn contains enough detail to tell the story but not so much as to become tedious. I generally prefer fiction over nonfiction since I find it more diverting, but The Big Burn kept me interested. The descriptions of the people caught in the fires are particularly well written. The book was thoroughly researched and contains not only big facts but also the little personal notes about the people involved that bring history alive.

Many of the forest rangers were recent immigrants, and Egan touches on the prejudice and challenges that they faced. He notes that the Italians had a saying: "I came to America beause I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things. First, the streets weren't paved with gold. Second, they weren't paved at all. And third, I was expected to pave them."

If you enjoy historical nonfiction or are a fan of Theodore Roosevelt, I recommend The Big Burn.

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