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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$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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