By Michael Miner
John Maclean’s Crucible
At one point in Fire on the Mountain, a meticulous portrait of a tragedy, the author fudges the facts. It’s where a smoke jumper named Quentin Rhoades is watching the wildfire blow up on western Colorado’s Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994.
“He realized that the situation was turning into another Mann Gulch,” John Maclean writes, “and said, without trying to cause alarm, that the book on the Mann Gulch fire would have to be rewritten after this one was over.”
What Rhoades actually said, according to the report of his official debriefing, was this: “We’re going to have to resurrect Norman Maclean to tell this story.” Norman Maclean was the author of the classic Young Men and Fire, and he was the father of John Maclean.
“If I had used the actual quote I’d have had to explain who Norman Maclean was,” says John Maclean, “and I would have had to explain who I was. And we’d have had the great author Norman Maclean overshadowing the people on the mountain fighting the fire. And I didn’t want to let that happen. So I didn’t let it happen.”
Though Norman Maclean remains unacknowledged until the closing notes of his son’s book, his fire, the one at Mann Gulch, is an essential part of the story. John Maclean, in fact, wanted to begin there, but discovered that for narrative reasons Mann Gulch was a prelude best introduced later.
As a teenager, Norman Maclean had fought fires in Montana’s wilderness while the older boys were gone fighting World War I. Some 60 years later, after retiring as a professor of English at the University of Chicago and gaining sudden eminence as the author of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, he began work on the subject that had preoccupied him for years. This was the 1949 fire in which 13 smoke jumpers died 60-some miles from Maclean’s cabin on Seeley Lake, Montana. Maclean arrived at Mann Gulch a few days later, when the fire was still burning itself out. Unable to let this memory go, he wrote and rewrote his book until he became too frail to continue. “I think,” says his son, “that his identification with the question of mortality in that story was so complete that the proper end was his own death.”
Death came in 1990 when Norman Maclean was 87. His son divided the manuscript into chapters and added three brief transitions, and Young Men and Fire was published to enormous acclaim in 1992.
John Maclean understands what his father went through technically as well as spiritually. “He was having trouble organizing the narrative, and it showed,” he says, speaking of the first draft. “It was very difficult to read. He then worked on it ten years, and instead of telling the story of the fire he told his own story. Young Men and Fire is the story of my father’s investigation of a life he might have lived, of a death he might have died, of a fire he might have fought.
“My father’s problem with the whole book,” he continues, “was that it would never settle down for him. He wanted to do a story about the fire, and he thought he had a story about the fire. And then he’d discover some new document, some new account, and it threw him off because all the thinking he’d done was wrong. So what he wound up with was the story of the quest. I had a lot of adventures along the way, but I don’t tell the story of the quest. I had enough of a fire story to tell a fire story.”
That John Maclean would follow in his father’s footsteps can be regarded as either inevitable or astonishing. He explains that after Young Men and Fire came out, he’d gone calling on the families of the Mann Gulch dead so that they could “say ‘damn you’ or ‘thank you’ to somebody live and connected with Young Men and Fire.” He encountered gratitude, while discovering that lives a generation or two removed from Mann Gulch remained haunted by it. The lessons taught by Mann Gulch had helped professionalize the chivalric calling of the wildland firefighters, and for 45 years no more smoke jumpers lost their lives to fire. But on Storm King Mountain history finally repeated itself, and 14 firefighters died, three of them jumpers.
The parallels between the two catastrophes were too close not to examine. Twice fire fed by drought and wind had exploded up the funnel of a gulch, consuming the humans in its path as they desperately climbed to escape it. Storm King Mountain asked terrible questions about a breakdown in procedures, and John Maclean recognized that as his father’s son, as well as a Tribune reporter with 30 years’ experience, he was in a unique position to answer them. Doors would open to him that would remain shut to any other writer. “I had a responsibility,” he says, “to the people who died. To myself.”
But he didn’t want to write a book.
“Would you like to take on Young Men and Fire on your first book out, and know that no matter how good your book was it was going to be compared to the mythic qualities of Young Men and Fire, and if it wasn’t good you were going to have to live with the reality of not having matched up with your father?”
“Me too. It also interrupted my life. I was a pretty successful journalist in my own way. I had a pretty good job. I was a financial reporter. Nobody bothered me. I would go in every two weeks and tell them what I was going to do, and they were grateful I could see that far ahead.”
Maclean is speaking by phone from that cabin on Seeley Lake, which has been in the family since 1921, about the book he dreaded starting. “I squirmed around,” he says, “and found a way to avoid it.” He took a pilgrimage to Mann Gulch and meditated on both fires, and then he wrote a long Tempo story that dwelled on the connections. But he saw the article for what it was–a half measure–and it didn’t satisfy him.
What it did bring was a friendship with Bob and Nadine Mackey of nearby Missoula. They were the parents of Don Mackey, a smoke jumper who’d died on Storm King Mountain.
The blowup had found Mackey at the top of a ridge, a place of relative safety, but he’d headed back downhill to lead other firefighters out. A few minutes later the inferno overwhelmed his cluster scrambling up the gulch’s west face, and Mackey somehow got to his feet and turned back again, toward Bonnie Holtby, the woman firefighter last in line.
Could he have saved himself if he’d kept going forward?
“When he got up he was dead, and he knew it,” says Maclean. “The fire was all around him. What may have happened was he didn’t know up from down.”
Perhaps he didn’t. But a surpassing nobility can be supposed from Mackey’s twice turning toward the fire. Stunned by Mackey’s conduct in the last ten minutes of his life, Maclean felt determined to understand it. “And in order to do that,” he says, “I had to write the book.”
So he quit the Tribune. “I’m a little wild when I read every review saying I retired from the Chicago Tribune. I resigned. I quit. I was not eligible for retirement. People who retire get pensions and life insurance benefits. I am only now eligible for a pension, which I am not taking because it would be minuscule. So I did strike out on my own, taking a big chance. But by then I was hooked on the story.”
Unlike his father, who teased his tale from memory and inference and placed himself necessarily at its center, John Maclean could interview dozens of witnesses and read thousands of pages of reports. “When I sat down to write the book,” he says, “my father was–meaning no disrespect to him–sort of a negative. Because he’d taken such a particular narrative line I couldn’t follow it. I had to sort out my own story, and I had a more complicated story than he did to sort out. I had 49 people on Storm King Mountain when the fire blew up, not 16 in Mann Gulch. The fire had been burning three or four days when that happened, not for half a day as it had in Mann Gulch. There were people on the mountain who’d never seen each other and never did see each other. So how do you deal with this thing–people not connected with each other but who share a fire? I kind of uncoupled myself from Young Men and Fire and went my own way.
“That said, my father and I spent a lot of time together on this fire. I had my Labrador retriever with me on these trips–some of them six months long–in the west, and I needed company, somebody to talk to. And we talked over a lot of this, driving 50,000 miles.”
There’s a danger in writing books such as Fire on the Mountain that too much blame or too little will be laid to fate. “A blowup is one of nature’s most powerful forces, equivalent to a mighty storm, avalanche or volcanic eruption,” John Maclean writes. “It can sweep away in moments everything before it, the works of nature and of humankind, and sometimes humankind itself….The flaming tempest can send a smoke column to a height of forty thousand feet or more. The blowup may die out once the gulch is burned or move on and reduce thousands of acres to ash. The blowing-up, in any case, is over in minutes.”
Maclean understood fire too well to write with the harsh reductionism of a muckraker, but the “flaming tempest” didn’t blind him to the human blundering that made it catastrophic. (First of all, the fire was allowed to burn for two days before anyone even set foot on the mountain to see about putting it out.) He is quietly scornful of an official report that found no one who survived blameworthy but allowed that the “can-do” spirit of the dead might have led them into trouble. Now Maclean expects Fire on the Mountain to lead two lives. “East of the Mississippi it’ll be read as a natural-disaster book. West of the Mississippi it’ll be ‘This is what happened to us.’ There is fear and loathing in some quarters of [the Bureau of Land Management] already about this book. I’m not guessing at that. And there’s a sense among some other people that this is the real story. It’s finally coming out.”
That said, in Maclean’s mind he has written a natural-disaster book, a book more appropriately compared to something by Jon Krakauer than to Young Men and Fire. “I would like to see this declared a hell of a good job of reporting, where there’s no fakery, there’s no painting with a big broad brush just to turn on a reader. None of that. This is really authentic, this is what really happened so far as we’re going to know. I think Into Thin Air is a great book, and it would be wonderful if someone said this is a better book than Into Thin Air.”
Krakauer experienced and survived the disaster on Everest he narrates, Maclean says, “so the comparison kind of breaks down.” But comparisons with his father’s book break down too. The two Maclean books were written in different ways for different purposes. Young Men and Fire is passionately introspective literature. Fire on the Mountain is journalism of the highest order.
A week ago I wrote about a Canadian “summit” held in Toronto on the decline of that nation’s hockey and wondered why such a significant sports event was ignored by American newspapers. But let’s give credit where it’s due. Though it overlooked the big hockey story, with all its implications for the NHL, the Tribune did carry a front-page story out of London on the low state of English cricket. The difference? One story was merely news, the other folklore.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matt Marton.