Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Timothy Egan's New Book is Terrific!

Life does not always behave so serendipitously, but today it chose to do so. For the past few days I've been reading -- and loving -- a new book, you know, the kind of book that you can't bear to put down to go to work or do laundry or eat meals or take care of any of the myriad responsibilities and engagements that typically occupy your time. The sort of book that as much as you want to keep reading, you also dread seeing it come to an end, because you are enjoying it so.

Just before coming into work today I finished my book, with a contented sigh, but then felt slightly sad -- not only because I had come to the end of a deliciously wonderful book, but also because, according to the back of the Advance Reading Copy I have, the book wouldn't be published until mid October.

Imagine my giddy surprise to walk in the front door of the store this afternoon and see the very same book, in shiny new hardcover format, sitting on the front table, having been released a few weeks early. So I'm happy to report that you, too, can now lose yourself in this wonderful book. Which means I should probably tell you what it is.

The book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America, by Timothy Egan. Egan, as you probably know, is the author of The Worst Hard Times, his book about the Great American Dust Bowl and winner of the National Book Award. He is also the author of two other books I treasure: The Good Rain, about the Pacific Northwest, and Lasso the Wind, about the West.

Egan is a spectacular researcher, writer, and storyteller -- I'd compare him to Jon Krakauer and Erik Larson, maybe Simon Winchester -- and he's got a beauty of a story here. On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, and 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 the blink of an eye. All told, it burned through more than three million acres in just two days, the largest-ever forest fire in America. To put it in perspective, the fires in LA in early September that garnered so much TV news time with stunning photos of roaring flames involved less than a couple hundred thousand acres at their peak.

Intertwined with the story of the fire, and of the efforts to save the people and towns in its path, is the story of Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the National Forest Service, and President Teddy Roosevelt, and their combined efforts to pioneer the notion of conservation, promoting the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by and preserved for every citizen. It's amazing how much the discussions in 1910 mirror the discussions we're having now, as we approach 2010 -- conservation, sustainability, putting public need ahead of private greed, government involvment versus private control, etc.

You can read what I've written about Egan in the past here. This is a terrific book from one of my favorite writers; I can't recommend it highly enough. Hurry! Come see for yourself.

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