Sunday, May 31, 2009

Something New from Timothy Egan

One of my all-time favorite nonfiction writers is Timothy Egan. Some of my favorite books of his are The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest; Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West; and The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dustbowl, for which Egan won the National Book Award -- and deservedly so; it's a terrific book.

And now we all have another book from Egan to look forward to: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. The book tells the story of the Big Burn, the largest-ever forest fire in America. On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno that jumped from treetop to ridge as it raged, destroying towns and timber in an eyeblink. Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men -- college boys, day-workers, immigrants from mining camps -- to fight the fires. But no living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the rangers nor anyone else knew how to subdue them.

Egan narrates the struggles of the overmatched rangers against the implacable fire with unstoppable dramatic force, through the eyes of the people who lived it. Equally dramatic, though, is the larger story he tells of outsized president Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot did nothing less than create the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by every citizen. The robber barons fought him and the rangers charged with protecting the reserves, but even as TR's national forests were smoldering they were saved: The heroism shown by those same rangers turned public opinion permanently in favor of the forests, though it changed the mission of the forest service with consequences felt in the fires of today.

The Big Burn tells an epic story, paints a moving portrait of the people who lived it, and offers a critical cautionary tale for our time -- characteristics of all of Egan's books. The book will be published mid-October -- let us know if you want us to reserve you a copy.

Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter. In addition to the National Book Award he won in 2006, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as part of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race is Lived in America." He lives in Seattle.

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