Norman MacLean, known for his work A River Runs Through It, examines the first major casualty disaster for the then-young smoke jumpers of the US Forest Service. The story itself is compelling, and MacLean brings his writer's touch to make it richer. He himself served as a wild land fire fighter for the Forest Service, so he comes with knowledge of his own. What really makes the book "work", however, is the story-within-a-story. As he chronicles the unexpected death of 13 young men, he, as a much older man, is facing his own mortality. This is one of those books one can read and then reread.
Twenty-five years after its first publication, Young Men and Fire is read avidly by students of literary nonfiction for its blend of hard-earned research, memoir, and an old man's wisdom. It tells one of the most infamous stories in the history of wildland firefighting: On August 5, 1949, a crew of fifteen of the United States Forest Service's elite airborne firefighters, the Smokejumpers, stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in the Montana wilderness. On the ground, they were joined by a local fireguard. Two hours after the jump, all but three of the men were dead or mortally burned. For forty years, Maclean was haunted by these deaths. And for the last years of his life, he struggled to write a book that would put back together the scattered pieces of the Mann Gulch disaster and to give it the dignity of tragedy. The result is both the definitive account of what happened to the Smokejumpers on that remote Montana mountainside in 1949, and the narrative of a writer's quest for meaning in the face of elusive facts and the waning energies of old age.