I admit I’ve had a slight crush on Teddy Roosevelt ever since reading about his adventures in the Amazon in Candice Millard’s RIVER OF DOUBT. But I probably would not have picked up THE BIG BURN, subtitled Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, had it not been assigned for a research writing workshop that I’m taking next month. I am not necessarily interested in wildfires, even really big ones.
But Timothy Egan quickly drew me in with sentences like this one: “These little fires would smolder for days, only to be kick-started anew by a sneeze of wind.” And this one: “The smoke was like a stale dream that hangs on through awakening into the bright hours of day.” He also does a seamless job of stitching historical facts into an engaging narrative, such as when he cites the New York Times obituary for Senator Weldon Heyburn, which described him as “a stalwart who was widely known for his unyielding bitterness.” I can picture Egan jumping up and down and giggling with glee when he came across that little tidbit. It is one of the many delights of this absorbing history.
Egan won a National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time, a history of Americans who survived the Dust Bowl, so obviously he is no slouch. And even though it sounds totally depressing, how can I pass it up?