four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
By: 
Timothy Egan
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Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America

A-The Big BurnPulitzer Prize winner Timothy Egan writes the Outposts blog for the New York Times Web site. His last book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2006), won the National Book Award.

The Topic: As U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt scored important victories for the conservation movement. This story is well known, but many Americans have forgotten about the significant retrenchment that occurred under the administration of Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft. While the barons of industry were preparing to claim much of the American West's natural resources, a gigantic fire--The Big Burn--broke out in 1910, eventually consuming an area the size of Connecticut. Egan tells the story of how Roosevelt and the first generation of federal forest rangers fought off the fire and earned a permanent place for themselves in the national political consciousness.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 324 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780618968411

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Even as we mark the centennial of this great fire, wildfires in the West continue to burn. It makes this book--which is a masterwork in every sense--worthy of a very careful reading." Larry Sears

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Big Burn serves a big helping of Great Man history, with some familiar, larger-than-life characters acting out a morality tale that delivers a satisfying kick. ... [A]s long as Egan keeps chasing storms, whether of dust, fire, rain or snow, you'd be smart to call shotgun." Michael Joseph Gross

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Timothy Egan's The Big Burn practically reeks of smoke and ash as he vividly reconstructs the terror of a runaway inferno set against the roots of today's continuing battle between greed and conservation over the vast natural resources (greatly diminished and threatened today) of our national forests. A corps of young, idealistic forest rangers, at first dismissed as dreamers, proved their mettle to the locals in 1910 but often at a cost of their very lives." Stephen J. Lyons

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"In The Big Burn, Timothy Egan addresses, with great ambition, both challenges [of writing about fire and politics]--the one force explosive, mercurial, and ultimately uncontrollable, and the other glacial, subtle, but in time no less powerful. ... After the fire, the synthesis is as fine a piece of American history as I've read since Richard Manning's Rewilding the West." Rick Bass

Seattle Post-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"Unlike today's hackneyed and clichéd wire-service accounts of wilderness fires, The Big Burn grabs readers with its strong verbs and vivid images. ... The Big Burn should keep [Egan] in the spotlight." Harry Levins

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The fire scenes occupy the bulk of the narrative, but the backstory is more interesting, centered on the curious friendship between Roosevelt and Pinchot that helped give birth to the modern conservation movement. ... [Egan] commands the full sweep of characters, from the president on down to the loneliest mining-town drunk." Bill Gifford

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Egan ... manages to engage the reader with a lively, colloquial style. ... He is not a professional historian, and a lack of specific documentation calls into question many of his statements." Clay Reynolds

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In covering such a huge swath of ground and relying primarily on personalities, not policies, to tell the story, the book omits significant complexities. ... Still, The Big Burn shows off Egan's writerly skills and will bring attention to both how the Northwest was won--with big timber at the front--as well as the current debate over fire prevention in the wilderness." Ellen Emry Heltzel

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[W]hile Roosevelt is justly celebrated for his vision and his shrewd use of the presidency as a bully pulpit ... the task of protecting public woodlands fell to a small corps of unsung foresters. It is in praise of these pioneering conservationists that Timothy Egan has written The Big Burn, an enlightening if uneven account of the Forest Service's embattled founding." Tony Horwitz

Critical Summary

Most reviewers thought that The Big Burn equaled or exceeded Egan's last book in both its prose and its historical synthesis. The majority were impressed by his ability to balance a riveting story with strong characters and an original analysis of the American conservation movement. A few reviewers, however, found the story unbalanced, preferring one side or another. Some found the policy history dull. But others felt that while Egan had fully committed his creativity to the story of Roosevelt and his allies, his actual descriptions of the fire were somewhat clichéd. Nevertheless, all reviewers recommended The Big Burn as a fine piece of writing, a powerful history, and a great read.