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“We are a story-telling people . . .”

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The Big Burn

One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years was Timothy Egan’s novel The Worst Hard Time, bringing the times of the Dust Bowl to life.

Thus, I’m always interested in anything he writes.

The Big Burn does not disappoint.

From the book’s jacket:

On the afternoon of August, 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno that jumped from treetop to ridge as it raged, destroying towns and timber in the blink of an eye.  Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men — college boys, day workers, immigrants from mining camps — to fight the fire.  But no living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the Rangers nor anyone else know how to subdue them.

Egan won the National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time, and the Big Burn proves that he can most certainly write.

A quotation from the chapter, Firestorm’s Eve:

Halm’s boss in Wallace was also fretting over an exit strategy–but for an entire town, not just a fire crew.  Bill Weigle had been working with soldiers from the 25th Infantry and the mayor on the evacuation plan for the three thousand or so residents of Wallace who remained behind.  Like Halm, his concern was the people would get trapped.  There were only two ways out of town: downriver, to the west and Spokane, or uphill, to the east and Missoula.  Each of those exits was a narrow slot in the mountains.  The passageways were funnels, and should one or both of them catch fire, they would force flame up the narrow byway like peas through a straw shooter.  It was agreed that the two trains from two different lines that came through Wallace would evacuate all the women and children.  The men would stay and fight for the town.