History’s third draft 

Mark Matthews answers Norman Maclean

The details of the Mann Gulch fire are well known. On Aug. 5, 1949, 15 smokejumpers based out of Missoula parachuted into Mann Gulch on the Missouri River to battle a fire started by a lightening strike the day before. Less than two hours later, 10 jumpers and a forest ranger were dead, and two more men would die the next day from their injuries.

Wag Dodge, the crew boss, endured the brunt of what blame angry survivors of the dead could scrape up. After all, he set a fire in the grass at the boys’ feet just as the larger fire was racing up from the gulch below, and they ran, probably thinking the old man was crazy. Only Dodge lay down in his fire’s ashes, and the big fire swept past him. He survived and they didn’t.

Mann Gulch shocked the firefighting community. It was, after all, the heady days after WWII, when Americans thought catastrophe and tragedy belonged to peoples with less pluck and ability than we. Investigations and lawsuits ensued, and the Forest Service developed the firefighting policies it still uses today. But apart from its bureaucratic legacy, Mann Gulch remains with us—especially in Missoula—because of Norman Maclean’s book, Young Men and Fire.

Maclean’s book is one of those rare works of enormous profundity—an intensely personal and slightly unhinged obsession with the details and times and events of what happened on Aug. 5, 1949—in which the author tackles a simple question: could it have been avoided? Would better training or deployment have saved the smokejumpers’ lives? Or was the fatal combination of fuel, oxygen, heat and geography an unpredictable and inevitable killer? It’s a simple question, maybe, but one whose answer might tell us if we have any power over nature, or death.

Young Men and Fire fails to answer its own question, which is right somehow. These things can’t really ever be known. But it also leaves the story unfinished. There are unsettling gaps left where the 13 men used to be. Or, as Maclean writes, “there may be somewhere an ending to this story, although it might take a storyteller’s faith to proceed on a quest to find it and on the way to retain the belief that it might both be true and fit together dramatically.”

As if answering Maclean’s challenge, Mark Matthews has written A Great Day to Fight Fire: Mann Gulch 1949. It’s an ambitious work, not just because it tries to fill the gaps Maclean left, but because Matthews has embraced imagination and invention to complete the tale.

A Great Day is told from the point of view of each of the principle actors in the drama, including not only the 16 men in Mann Gulch that day, but the rescuers and family left behind. To do that, Matthews creates fictitious scenes and depicts thoughts and actions he has completely imagined, using interviews, letters and first-hand accounts as his basis. He invented at least one character—an old fire lookout named “Vincent”—and wrote a chapter from his point of view. He even wrote a chapter from the fire’s point of view as it smoldered during the night of Aug. 4.

As a result, A Great Day feels like a novel and reads like a thriller. That’s not a bad thing, of course; some believe fiction gets a little closer to truth—whatever that is—because of its ability to worm its way anywhere it wants, free from the confines of physics or fact. For example, the book begins and ends with Julie Reba—wife of smokejumper Stanley Reba who died at Mann Gulch—as she contemplates suicide, with thoughts we’ll never really know, because she succeeded in 1959. In A Great Day, she meets each of the dead smokejumpers in a Capra-esque afterlife, still healthy and whole and in Mann Gulch, climbing to safety ahead of the fire.

Matthews also fudges over the details to which Maclean dedicated the last 20 years of his life. Where Maclean spends years placing the location of Dodge’s escape fire, Matthews cares only that he lit it. Where Maclean agonizes over where the wind currents blew Dodge’s fire, Matthews has his smokejumpers simply run past the fire. Whether it’s Dodge’s fire that catches them, or the main fire, is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that they were boys who had girlfriends and silly habits and history and that they jumped into Mann Gulch.

If it’s true, as Maclean alleges in his book, that the world is formed by an unending series of cataclysms, from the first fusion of steaming gas to volcanic upheaval and colliding continents, then fire, perhaps, is a perfect symbol for our world and our relation to it. Harnessing fire must have been our species’ first and most important act of self-determination. But, like cheatgrass, we burn. As do our crops, livestock and homes. And yet fire is of the earth, and without it our soils would be barren and our forests deserts. It’s no wonder fire is at the center of so much of our storytelling.

In the end Matthews’ account is not far removed from screenplay, and all the easy comforts that art form typically offers. His story offers closure, tempting now that most of those associated with Mann Gulch are long gone, the scars opened by that fire not so much healed as buried, and especially tempting compared to the complexities and cold poetry Maclean dishes out. But the wonder of our world deserves much more than easy conclusions.

Mark Matthews reads from and signs copies of A Great Day to Fight Fire Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 7 PM at Fact & Fiction.
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