Friday, December 07, 2012

Nonfiction Review: The Big Burn

My neighborhood book group just read The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan, and though I wasn’t well enough to go to the meeting on Wednesday night, I did thoroughly enjoy reading this fascinating historical book.

Teddy Roosevelt’s love for the outdoors is well known, but I didn’t realize that he was the person who created the National Forest Service while he was President.  He also set aside large tracts of primeval land as National Forests in the last days of his office, in direct opposition to the Forest Service’s many enemies who wanted the rich reserves of timber for their own purposes.  The book also focuses heavily on Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt’s Chief Forester and another key force in the creation and maintenance of our National Forests (and whom I’d never even heard of).

However, the center point of this story is the Great Fire of 1910, a raging inferno that destroyed over 3 million acres of forest and towns, an area about the size of Connecticut, spread across Washington, Idaho, and Montana.  Roosevelt’s and Pinchot’s fledgling Forest Service, starved of resources by its opponents in Congress, was helpless against a natural force so large and destructive.  But the forest rangers were the real heroes of this story, as they persisted against impossible odds to try to save the towns and people they felt responsible for.

Although this is a nonfiction book – history, even, the subject I found driest when I was in school – it reads like a novel.  Egan tells the story with the compelling pace of a good suspense story, with the fire serving as the unstoppable villain.  The historical background surrounding Roosevelt, Pinchot, and their drive for conservation of public lands is fascinating, especially for someone like me who loves the outdoors and spends her vacations in National Parks and Forests.  I had no idea that Roosevelt was a good friend of John Muir or that there was such opposition to the very concepts of public lands and conservation.  I was also fascinated to learn that the forestry concepts that Pinchot laid out for his rangers in the early 1900’s persisted with very little change until just recently.  These men – both the leaders and the rangers – created a lasting impact that still affects our lives today.  Why wasn’t history in high school ever this interesting and exciting?

283 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Another excellent historical book about Teddy Roosevelt was The River of Doubt by Candice Millard.



  1. Nice review...and loved "River of Doubt," too. If you liked The Big Burn, you might also like Egan's new one.

  2. I'm so glad you posted this review! My Dad is a big Teddy Roosevelt fan and I needed a gift idea for him. Now I have it! This sounds like something he will really enjoy. Thanks for posting it!

  3. Nice to hear from you, Pam! And glad I could help in the gift department ;)

    Actually, I gave this book to my brother-in-law for his birthday last year - he is a high school history teacher and loved it! Can't wait to talk to him about it when I see him for the holidays!