The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan


For the longest time, all through high school and college, I shied away from non-fiction books that weren’t on my required reading lists. My image of non-fiction was one of drily written tales that read like epic encyclopedia entries; just the facts, ma’am. But, about seven years ago I stumbled upon Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, turning my notion of non-fiction writing on its head. (Stumbled upon isn’t entirely accurate. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in western China, starving from a lack of reading material and was handed this book. Whereas a year before I would have turned my nose up at it, literary deprivation had taken hold and I devoured the paperback, cover to cover, in just two days.) Since my introduction into the new world of non-fiction, I’ve read everything from real-life accounts of floods in Pennsylvania (The Johnstown Flood  by David McCullough) to adventures in the far reaches of the Amazon (The Unconquered by Scott Wallace), not to mention a bevy of memoirs.

My most recent foray into the world of non-fiction was The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, a tale of the birth of our national park system and the fire that nearly destroyed it. As a frequenter of the American national parks, the book drew me in with the history of how these lands were set aside and preserved for future generations, which was no easy task as industry leaders would rather turn a profit off the wood and minerals available, building a dynasty for their family, rather than create a lasting legacy for the entire nation. Egan does a great job giving the background of this fight, leaving the reader feeling like they “knew” Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.

With a strong back story set, Egan then pushes the reader through the harrowing forty-eight hours that were “the big burn.” Connections between the reader and the characters, as well as the reader and the land, create a sense of panic and fear as the fire ravages the mountain ridges of the northwestern forests. I could feel the flames licking my hands as I turned the pages; I could feel the heat of the fire as it rushed over fireman huddled in creeks under wet blankets and hunkered down in ravines and caves; I could feel the air rush out of the room as the fire stole away the oxygen, leaving noxious poison in its stead; and I could feel the fear of men who were moments away from their painful deaths.

In the last decade, non-fiction has become highly readable. No longer does one feel like they need to be a subject matter in the topic at hand before picking up a history-based book. Egan continues to add to this recreated genre- writing a book about the birth of our nation’s beloved parks that is ideal for anyone who has ever set foot in the wilderness of the northwest. While the disastrous mixture of the greed of the eastern seaboard barons and the big burn nearly destroyed the burgeoning forest service and all Pinchot and Roosevelt worked for, the author is able to spin the tale in such a way to create hope on the part of the reader, ending with a sense of better days, rather than the one of despair that could so easily take its place. Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn earns:

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Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

garden of stones

World War II gets a lot of attention in high school history books and on TV documentaries, but oftentimes while the sacrifices of American soldiers are the center point of these discussions, a darker tale is swept under the rug- that of internment camps on our own soil, built to hold our own citizens. The Japanese camps of the early 1940s are too often skimmed over in the discussion of the US’ role in the war, not giving fair play time to those who suffered and lost while never leaving their home country. Sophie Littlefield’s latest book, Garden of Stones, shines a light on this difficult time in American history, weaving a tale that links the pain of several generations.

As Garden of Stones jumps between the Patty’s pending wedding in the late 1970s and the dissolution of that same family in the early 1940s, Littlefield tells Lucy’s story- the middle woman in a three-generation tale. Lucy was just a teenager when the US government decided it would be prudent to gather up all Americans of Japanese ancestry and send them to holding camps, fearful that these people would work with the Japanese military against the US. Lucy was still reeling from the sudden loss of her father when she and her mother were shipped to Mazanar in California. While Lucy found the transition easier than her mother, falling into a part-time job as a delivery girl and meeting Jessie, who would be her first true love, her mother, Miyako, finds no such solace. As a beautiful woman, she is instantly noticed by the officers who ran the camp and soon forced to provide favors for these men, in hopes of keeping her maturing, and beautiful, daughter away from their prying eyes and filthy hands.

Soon though, Patty sees the darker side of the camp, as she realizes that not only her mother, but also Jessie, are taken advantage of in ways that would be unheard of in her life before the war came to American soil. This sudden loss of naivety starts the ball rolling on a series of events that will transform not only her own life, but those of her mother and Jessie as well.

Garden of Stones doesn’t condone the choices and subsequent actions of its various struggling characters, but it does shine a light on their backgrounds, allowing the reader to see beyond the face value of what appears to be heartless maiming of a child or cold-blooded murder. There is more to each character than meets the eye and as readers, we are privy to those histories and stories.

My one complaint with this book is that the multi-generational ensemble cast creates such a huge tale to tell that individual’s stories often don’t go as deep as I would like. There were several characters introduced, who by the end of the novel, I still want to know more about. Stories that need to be told are left open-ended, in what seem to be unintentional cliffhangers.

Sophie Littlefield’s latest work isn’t always easy to read, on an emotional level, but it does tell the tale of a time too often forgotten, and does so in a way that made me really consider just how large a swath of gray area can exist when it comes to the choices people make, earning it:

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

If it is drama you crave, Russian history is probably one of the best non-fiction outlets for your desire.  It is filled with love and betrayal, possible marriages and definite assassinations, and intrigue beyond what Hollywood can manufacture. Catherin the Great: Portrait of a Woman covers all of these possibilities, as well as a glance at ancient frenemies, haters, posers and every other modern label for the spectacle-loving folks!

Catherine, originally Sophia, born in 1729, had ties to European nobility through her mother, but it took a summons from Russia for her to ascend to the rank of empress. But such a monumental climb would take years, as well as royal amounts of patience on her part. After her betrothal and eventual wedding to the decidedly undesirable (both in physical and emotional contexts) Peter III, Catherine is forced to bend to the will of her over-bearing mother-in-law and her immature new husband.

After the death of Empress Elizabeth, it quickly becomes apparent that Peter is not fit for the throne. He doesn’t have the intelligence, the interest or stamina one would need to rule a country as large and diverse as Russia in the mid 1700’s. With his true love remaining in his native Europe, Peter aligns himself with countries out of nostalgia rather than through a determination of what is strategically the best for his adopted country. When this mindset of ruling starts to show cracks, it doesn’t take long for the strong-willed Catherine to step in, take control of the court and crown herself Empress Catherine II.

Catherine the Great follows the empire-leader from the time she was a young girl, a mere teenager, called away from her family by the Empress Elizabeth to be the wife of the empress’ nephew and future successor, Peter III, to the stroke that eventually took her life. Throughout these decades, readers are treated to not only Catherine the Great’s political dealings, but her personal triumphs and failures as well.

Massie’s book has an extraordinary amount of detail in it, which is both its top asset, as well as one of the biggest detractions. While I was fascinated with where Catherine (then Sophia) came from and her rise to power and fame, at times the digressions into history, philosophy and personal dalliances became a distraction to her tale. While there is no way to whittle the life of a royal down to a few hundred pages, I feel as though Massie could have edited some of the divergences, which at times rambled down paths that, while illuminating specific points of Russian history, were not necessary for the reader to understand Catherine’ s trek to the throne.

With much of my Russian history being the much more current studies in most curricula today, including the time of USSR and the Cold War, Catherine the Great was a fascinating tale of one woman’s triumph over a deadbeat husband and her rise to the ultimate seat of authority. Robert K. Massie has crafted a biography that reads as smoothly as a work of fiction, drawing the reader in to the tale of the ancient Russian royalty’s inner lives and political leanings. While I believe a bit of editing would have created a more finely tuned tale, Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a solid biography of a bold woman, earning it:


$8 and 6 Years Later…

Just a little over six years ago, on a sunny June afternoon in 2005, I innocently made an $8 purchase, not knowing that my small investment would end up informing my vacations for the foreseeable future.

After climbing Big Kill Devil Hill and witnessing where the Wright brothers conducted their famous glider tests, checking out full-scale reproductions of both the 1902 and 1903 flying contraptions and wandering the dunes surrounding the national park area, it was time for our party of four (Mom, Dad, Thad and me) to hit the road.  As Thad and Dad went to use the restroom, Mom and I decided to check out the gift shop.  While there, I saw a National Parks Passport book.  Now, apparently these things have been around for a long time, but this was my first introduction to them.  Knowing how nerdy Thad is about history (we were actually on the East Coast because he was taking a summer AP History course for teachers at Wake Forrest University), I thought it would be fun to get him one of these little books.  Little did I know I what I was getting myself into…

Jump ahead six years: with nearly all of the northwest stamps added to the passport (with the exception of Alaska),  a cross-country move was just what was needed to continue adding to the collection of ink on the book’s precious pages.  With that in mind, it was time to go on a stamp-hunting expedition.

Last weekend, we rented a car and headed for a series of US National Parks in Virginia.  Our sightseeing included deserted parks where we were the only visitors, like the Thomas Stone National Historic Site, as well as well-known, high-traffic parks such as Appomattox.  While the passport has dictated many trips over the last half decade, the best part about it is seeing things we never would have seen without its lead. Would I have sought out the pencil General Robert E. Lee used to sign the official surrender of the Confederates to the North?  Nope!  Have I seen it?  Yes!!  Would I have sauntered through the halls of Maggie Walker’s 5000 square-foot Richmond home?  Nope? Have I seen the elevator she had installed in her modern-era home?  Yes!

While these trips do lead to a wealth of knowledge, they are not nearly as serious/scholarly as one might think.  I tend to look at them as a great chance to play dress-up! One recent trip found Thad and friends snickering after I popped around the corner of a display case in full Civil War era soldier garb, announcing I was headed to war.  (This was followed by my expert translation of a sample Morse code message.  I’m pretty sure it was asking for crunchy peanut butter and no crusts on all future sandwiches.) I’ve also donned a metal helmets and sword as a member of a conquistador party in Florida and a hoop skirt and bonnet as a Civil War era plantation owner’s wife.

While I am off playing make-believe in a fashion that would make Mr. Rogers proud, Thad is usually chatting it up with the park rangers, filling his noggin with obscure facts and stories about each site.  We’ve come to discover that US National Park rangers are a unique breed.   They tend to be overflowing with minutia about their given site, spinning tales of the people and times that created the setting where they work.  Most have a passion for the preservation of their site and the education of their visitors. In short, they are history nerds.  (I’m pretty sure that if Thad didn’t work for the Department of State or wasn’t a teacher, he would be a park ranger!)

When I dug eight wrinkled dollars out of the bottom of my purse at a small gift shop on the coast of North Carolina six years ago, I had no idea that the gift that I bought more in jest than seriousness would become a central player in the planning of our future stateside travels!  Thrill seekers plan their vacations around amusement parks, foodies around culinary experiences and high rollers around trendy spa/golf resorts.  The Ross family?  We plot ours around our dog-eared National Parks Passport!

(Photos from various stamp gathering expeditions.)

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