Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My Favorite Book (A Few Words for Wednesday)

This weekly slot was meant to feature poetry and has done so until today. But yesterday afternoon I picked up my favorite book again for the fourth or fifth time, and I can’t imagine writing about any other “Words” right now. You may know Norman Maclean (left) as the author of the story behind the movie “A River Runs Through It.” My favorite book is Norman Maclean’s other book.

“A River Runs Through It” has the best first line and the best last lines of any book I’ve ever read, except maybe Maclean’s other book. A slightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in Montana with a Presbyterian-minister father and a troubled brother (played by Brad Pitt in the Robert Redford movie), “A River Runs Through It” begins:

In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing. 

It ends, following the death of the author-narrator’s brother, a superb fisherman:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.

I am haunted by Young Men and Fire, Maclean’s other book, published posthumously in 1992 after Maclean had spent the last fifteen years of his life researching and writing a story that had haunted him since he was in his 40s. He died at age 87.

The story is the Mann Gulch fire, and both the fire and the haunting are summed up beautifully in the opening lines of Young Men and Fire:

It was a few days after the tenth of August, 1949, when I first saw the Mann Gulch fire and started to become, even then in part consciously, a small part of its story. I had just arrived from the East to spend several weeks in my cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana. The postmistress in the small town at the lower end of the lake told me about the fire and how thirteen Forest Service Smokejumpers had been burned to death on the fifth of August trying to get to the top of a ridge ahead of a blowup in tall, dead grass. 

Maclean says “the East” but means Chicago. For forty years he was a revered professor of English at the University of Chicago and wrote only scholarly works until his retirement in the 1970s. Then he set out to do what most of my memoirs clients do, nothing more, nothing less: set down a few stories for his children. The result was A River Runs Through It and Other Stories—three in all, including the fabulous title “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim.’” While the title story concerns Maclean’s family life as a child and young man, the other two pieces in the book are about his forest experiences in late adolescence. He fought fires in the West when he was only fifteen, so the story of thirteen college-age boys dying in “a blowup in tall, dead grass” was something he always identified with.

This will be a very long post if I don’t set some limits to it. So let me do two more things only: tell you why I love this book so much and give you part of the ending of the book. You’ll have to read Young Men and Fire to read all of the ending.

Young Men and Fire is a work about young men by an old man who stood where the young men stood and fought fires as they did. MacLean wrote, “The problem of identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead.”

Young Men and Fire is the work of a man who never stopped searching for the meaning of existence. Maclean dedicated his retirement years to reconstructing what happened to the young Smokejumpers from the moment they landed full of youthful confidence “up gulch” from the fire to the final moments when, the fire having “blown up” and rushed toward them on a steep hillside in high flammable grass on the hottest of August days, they scrambled desperately for the ridge where they knew the fire would wane. Only two young men and their leader made it alive. Did the leader’s “escape fire” (you’ll have to read the book) cause the deaths of some of the fallen? And what did the fallen experience as they fought for their final breaths in a fire that suffocated them before it burned them?

Maclean offers a beautiful answer to the latter question:

Although we can enter their last thoughts and feelings only by indirection, we are sure of the final act of many of them. Dr. Hawkins, the physician who went in with the rescue crew the night the men were burned, told me that, after the bodies had fallen, most of them had risen again, taken a few steps, and fallen again, this final time like pilgrims in prayer, facing the top of the hill, which on that slope is nearly east. Ranger Jansson, in charge of the rescue crew, independently made the same observation.

The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky. 

This is almost but not quite the end of Young Men and Fire. You will have to read it yourself to reach the final lines. They will hit you like a haymaker.

The best way to tell you how much I love this book is this: On one of our final trips together, my father, then an old man, and I traveled to Great Falls, Montana, to see my uncle (Mom’s brother), a retired rancher. In our rental car, I set out alone one morning along the road that winds south with the Missouri, until I reached what are known as the Gates of the Mountains, the place where the Missouri flows northward out of the Rockies and from there onto the Great Plains. One of the first gulches inside the Gates is Mann Gulch. Just downriver (north) of Mann Gulch, I hopped a charter boat and asked to be dropped off upriver at a place where I could climb into Mann Gulch. I was dropped at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon, and I then climbed the side of Meriwether to a place where I could look into Mann. Here is the picture I took from that vantage point:

The far hillside is the one up which the young men raced against fire.

Norman Maclean wrote two great books in his last twenty years, his seventies and eighties. I am now 59, and if I can write one book half so good as either of these before I’m done, you can punch my ticket. But even if I don’t write one good book, I want to live my last years as Norman Maclean did, searching for the truth—and as the young men did too, facing the top of the hill, “nearly east.”