My Favorite Book (A Few Words for Wednesday)

This weekly slot was meant to feature poetry and has done so until today. But yesterday afternoon I picked up my favorite book again for the fourth or fifth time, and I can’t imagine writing about any other “Words” right now. You may know Norman Maclean (left) as the author of the story behind the movie “A River Runs Through It.” My favorite book is Norman Maclean’s other book.

“A River Runs Through It” has the best first line and the best last lines of any book I’ve ever read, except maybe Maclean’s other book. A slightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in Montana with a Presbyterian-minister father and a troubled brother (played by Brad Pitt in the Robert Redford movie), “A River Runs Through It” begins:

In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing. 

It ends, following the death of the author-narrator’s brother, a superb fisherman:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.

I am haunted by Young Men and Fire, Maclean’s other book, published posthumously in 1992 after Maclean had spent the last fifteen years of his life researching and writing a story that had haunted him since he was in his 40s. He died at age 87.

The story is the Mann Gulch fire, and both the fire and the haunting are summed up beautifully in the opening lines of Young Men and Fire:

It was a few days after the tenth of August, 1949, when I first saw the Mann Gulch fire and started to become, even then in part consciously, a small part of its story. I had just arrived from the East to spend several weeks in my cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana. The postmistress in the small town at the lower end of the lake told me about the fire and how thirteen Forest Service Smokejumpers had been burned to death on the fifth of August trying to get to the top of a ridge ahead of a blowup in tall, dead grass. 

Maclean says “the East” but means Chicago. For forty years he was a revered professor of English at the University of Chicago and wrote only scholarly works until his retirement in the 1970s. Then he set out to do what most of my memoirs clients do, nothing more, nothing less: set down a few stories for his children. The result was A River Runs Through It and Other Stories—three in all, including the fabulous title “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim.’” While the title story concerns Maclean’s family life as a child and young man, the other two pieces in the book are about his forest experiences in late adolescence. He fought fires in the West when he was only fifteen, so the story of thirteen college-age boys dying in “a blowup in tall, dead grass” was something he always identified with.

This will be a very long post if I don’t set some limits to it. So let me do two more things only: tell you why I love this book so much and give you part of the ending of the book. You’ll have to read Young Men and Fire to read all of the ending.

Young Men and Fire is a work about young men by an old man who stood where the young men stood and fought fires as they did. MacLean wrote, “The problem of identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead.”

Young Men and Fire is the work of a man who never stopped searching for the meaning of existence. Maclean dedicated his retirement years to reconstructing what happened to the young Smokejumpers from the moment they landed full of youthful confidence “up gulch” from the fire to the final moments when, the fire having “blown up” and rushed toward them on a steep hillside in high flammable grass on the hottest of August days, they scrambled desperately for the ridge where they knew the fire would wane. Only two young men and their leader made it alive. Did the leader’s “escape fire” (you’ll have to read the book) cause the deaths of some of the fallen? And what did the fallen experience as they fought for their final breaths in a fire that suffocated them before it burned them?

Maclean offers a beautiful answer to the latter question:

Although we can enter their last thoughts and feelings only by indirection, we are sure of the final act of many of them. Dr. Hawkins, the physician who went in with the rescue crew the night the men were burned, told me that, after the bodies had fallen, most of them had risen again, taken a few steps, and fallen again, this final time like pilgrims in prayer, facing the top of the hill, which on that slope is nearly east. Ranger Jansson, in charge of the rescue crew, independently made the same observation.

The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky. 

This is almost but not quite the end of Young Men and Fire. You will have to read it yourself to reach the final lines. They will hit you like a haymaker.

The best way to tell you how much I love this book is this: On one of our final trips together, my father, then an old man, and I traveled to Great Falls, Montana, to see my uncle (Mom’s brother), a retired rancher. In our rental car, I set out alone one morning along the road that winds south with the Missouri, until I reached what are known as the Gates of the Mountains, the place where the Missouri flows northward out of the Rockies and from there onto the Great Plains. One of the first gulches inside the Gates is Mann Gulch. Just downriver (north) of Mann Gulch, I hopped a charter boat and asked to be dropped off upriver at a place where I could climb into Mann Gulch. I was dropped at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon, and I then climbed the side of Meriwether to a place where I could look into Mann. Here is the picture I took from that vantage point:

The far hillside is the one up which the young men raced against fire.

Norman Maclean wrote two great books in his last twenty years, his seventies and eighties. I am now 59, and if I can write one book half so good as either of these before I’m done, you can punch my ticket. But even if I don’t write one good book, I want to live my last years as Norman Maclean did, searching for the truth—and as the young men did too, facing the top of the hill, “nearly east.”

  • ann

    Wow, Webster! I have to run out today to get this book. Thanks so much for your sharing and thank God too for His gift to you – the ability to write for and to inspire others. No doubt you will have that one good book (I would venture to say Not just one)and the world will be better because you share it with us. Thank you!

  • EPG

    "Young Men and Fire" is a _great_ book. If I didn't have so much to read that I haven't read, I would dust off my copy for another re-read. BTW — I don't know if you are familiar with the singer-songwriter Richard Schindell. About fifteen years ago or so, he wrote a beautiful song about the Mann Gulch fire, inspired (if I recall correctly) by the book. Well worth a listen (I don't know if it is on i-tunes).

  • Anonymous

    Webster, do you write for Catholics only, or do you also write for Protestants?

  • EPG

    OK – I need to do my homework a little more carefully before I post. Richard Shindell (see, I had the spelling wrong before) did record the song, but not on a solo album. The recording was on the CD “Cry Cry Cry,” which he made with fellow singer songwriters Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams in about 1998. However, he did not write the song. It is the work of Canadian James Keelaghan. Whatever the provenance, it is well worth a listen, especially if you are familiar with McLean’s book.And it _is_ apparently available on i-tunes;=uo%3D5

  • Allison

    Anon 12:37 p.m. Allison barging in here to answer a piece of your question. First, thanks for stopping by. This blog is written by three folks, including me, who want to share with others the reasons they are Catholic. Our audience is anyone willing to read our posts!If you are asking about Webster's professional life, he's a publisher of all kinds of regional (New England) books and a writer of all manner of memoirs.

  • EPG

    To Anon above.The authors of the blog describe this as "An on-line gathering of Catholics and those in discernment, reflecting on the most compelling question of all."I'm not Roman Catholic, and may never be. But I have a strong sympathy for, and sometime attraction to, Catholicism, especially when it has spokesmen such as Webster and his colleagues on this blog. I want to hear why they (and others) are Catholic, as I try to figure out the big questions, because, as my dear old Episcopal Church collapses, I have a lot to figure out. So I figure Webster, Frank and Allison are writing for anyone who cares to read, to think, and to chime in from time to time.

  • Anonymous

    To Allison andTo EPGThank you for taking the time to respond. I feel the majority of these posts are used as an opportunity to build up the "holier than thou" Catholics by tearing down the "lowly unholy" Protestants. Whatever happened to the UNITY of all Christians which our Lord desires?

  • Webster Bull

    Dear Anon 8/6,I agree that for all Christians (humans too) the temptation to pride is always there. Believe me, writing a blog is a daily temptation. But what Frank, Allison, and I are AIMING for is to express the joy we experience in being Catholics and to give the reasons why. I don't see that as prideful in itself — assuming we stick to the mission! Thanks for reading.

  • Anonymous

    To WebsterThank you for your response. I am hoping that all future posts will be your expressions of joy in being Catholic … WITHOUT your feeling it necessary to express negativism toward Protestant Christians. Your blog could help promote Christian UNITY instead of division. However, your blog … your rules.

  • Robert

    Webster,Thank you for this beautiful post. I have been fascinated with Maclean since I was a boy and first saw 'the film.' I have watched this movie more than any other (probably), but I've never been sure why. It has always spoken to me. Several years ago I bought "A River Runs…and other stories"; just as wonderful as I'd imagined. It is strange that I was just gazing at my bookshelf today when I pulled this off and decided to do a quick search to see if anything new was 'out there.' So glad I did.I am forever haunted by that last paragraph! It's just remarkable. However, I might contend that John Irving's first line of "A Prayer for Owen Meany" beats Maclean's wonderfully simplistic opening: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." (And, since we're here through the lens of religion…I'd recommend this book to any and all – what a journey!)Again, thank you for posting and I plan to add your blog to my RSS feed.All my best!

  • Webster Bull

    Hey Robert, Maclean beats Irving for brevity, anyway! :-) But I will add Owen Meany to my vacation reading list, thanks.

  • jedesto

    Maclean's fans will enjoy Michael D. O'Brien's novel "The Island of the World" about loss, search for meaning, and resurrection.

  • Webster Bull

    Jedesto, agreed: Island of the World is a wonderful novel.

  • EPG

    Webster – -This post now has me thinking of great opening and closing lines of books — I don't own a copy of Homer Hickham's "Rocket Boys" (a situation I will have to correct), but next time that I go to my local library, I will check it out — he has one of the best opening paragraphs of any book I have read.

  • Webster Bull

    @EPG, I have a young friend who swears by "Rocket Boys." Time for me to read it.

  • EPG

    Hickham wrote three books about his life in Coalwood, WV. "Rocket Boys," the first, is probably the best, but the other two ("The Coalwood Way" and "Sky of Stone") are also well worth reading. I recently re-read "Rocket Boys," but returned it to my local libary. BTW, "Rocket Boys" was made into a fine film, under the title "October Sky." Also worth a look.

  • Robert R. LaPorte

    In Response to Anonymous: Webster writes his blog, and started his blog with the purest of intentions. He is a friend of mine, and I offer this knowledge of him at the risk of not offending him. He's a man who has journeyed through the path of life like us all, carrying with him the big questions of life, it's meaning, and it's ultimate destiny. Like many of us, that path at times is a darkened path unto which the light of discernment does not always shine true.Our Lord through his incarnation redeemed the very broken nature of humankind, and set mankind free and with the ability to participate in the "fullness of life" so long as the choice was to belong to him, and to follow in humble servitude.Upon The Death and Ressurection of our Lord, humanity was left to participate in his "mystical body" the Church. That unified group of believers were not given authority to make this timeless truth a democracy, but rather a means of viable community of sinners who seekthe fullness of life in and through the sacraments, especially confession and the Holy Eucharist, and teachings of our Lord himself through the continued practice of the Oral tradition handed down by the Apostles, as well as Sacred Scripture.His 40 year search brought him to the Catholic Church, and his story is compelling, and an actual historic episode of verifiable Grace. His reception into the Church found him in the midst of NOT "holier than Thou Catholics" but in the midst of sinners who continue to Seek the Lord not only in and through the written word of Scripture but the Sacraments as well.His stumbling upon a charism within the Church,C.L, has renewed and enkindled in him a "new awareness" of Our Lord, His own Humanity, and the daily reflection of his role in the Salvific Mission of Our Lord's Mystical Body.For Humanity, to consider that God has an indifferent attitude towards the unification of his Mystical Body, is to make God their own, and to manipulate his will. We come to the "Grace of Recognition" as Peter did, not through personal worth, nor personal sancticty, but through, as our Lord said to Peter "What God has revealed to You" Matthew : 16.The Catholic Church is and has always been, and will always be, God's announcement to Humankindthat this unified body of sinners, were given the opportunity to seek him, worship him, and be assured that his very Real presence is in their lives, not only in the notion of words, but in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, andthe opportunity given to us to be redeemed through His Grace of Pardon.Robert R. LaPorte

  • Anonymous

    To Robert R. La Porte, amen. I approach Christ in His capacity as Divine Physician. Certainly, I need Him more than He could ever need me. But that being said, we love each other. Not only am I not holier than Thou, I'm not holier than anyone. There but for the grace of God…..

  • Frank

    I must just be "needier" than most. I need every bit of all of the treasures the Church offers us in order to survive this journey.

  • Robert R. LaPorte

    To Anonymous: Our Lord ordained twelve men, His"Inner Group" to be the leaders amongst equals. He then commissioned them to set the "World Ablaze" with His "New Way" of living out the human existence. The Eating of his Body, and Drinking of His Bloodwas the Pre Cursor, To Salvation, and that is from the Lord's Mouth, and not my opinion to accept or reject.I'm glad you have a personal privatized relationship with Your Savior, but if that be so,I would hope that in the near future you accepthis timeless invitation to belong to his Mystical Body as He prescribed, and not as yousee fit.We welcome you, we pray for your conversion into Christ's Holy Catholic Church, and await yourparticipation in the Building of the Kingdom here on Earth. Pray for meRobert R. LaPorte