Bowdoin Reads

Martie Janeway, Alumni Relations, is reading...

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the fire that saved America
by Timothy Egan

I’ve always been drawn to stories that have some sort of historical basis, whether fiction or non-fiction. The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, author of the National Book Award-winning The Worst Hard Time, offers up a riveting account of the 1910 forest fire that ravaged the Bitterroot Mountains in northern Idaho, western Washington, and Montana. Egan actually has two stories to share in this book, the first half of which is devoted to the establishment of the United States Forest Service. The main character in this account is Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the Service, (and, in my opinion, a bit of an odd duck) who was a driving force in its creation. Of course, to tell this story, you need to include Teddy Roosevelt and his commitment to preserving the nation’s (as well as the world’s) public spaces. What struck me most forcefully in the telling of this particular part of our country’s history is how Roosevelt was so savvy and politically adroit in using his “Bully Pulpit” to draft legislation that was violently opposed by corrupt legislators bought by the powerful logging, mining, and railroad barons. I couldn’t help but compare his ability to prevail over these obstacles to President Obama’s efforts with the Affordable Healthcare Act. This is where I want to dig deeper and analyze the difference in circumstances, personalities, and realities of the times. The second half of The Big Burn details the brave deeds of Gifford Pinchot’s Yale Forestry Program-trained forest rangers, known as “little GPs”, and the thousands of brave people who worked tirelessly to overcome the unstoppable blaze. The personal accounts of these real-life characters, as well as how the experience shaped their future lives and the policies of the National Forest Service, was a story in itself. So, I came away well satisfied with this read. Oh, and for anyone who is a fan of HBO’s Deadwood series – no exaggeration on that mining town’s depiction. In fact, from what is detailed in The Big Burn, they got it just right!

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