Books, Review

Book Reviews: Big Burn and River War

I’ve been reading non-fiction lately, rather than fiction. Some of it has been for research, other books have simply been because I ran across them and they sounded interesting. Which is why I read The Big Burn.

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Somewhat grandiosely subtitled “Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America,” the book is the story of the huge wildfire that swept across Washington, Idaho, and Montana in 1910. More than that, the book is an idolizing look at Gifford Pinchot, the father of the Forest Service. The story of how the National Forests were born in a fit of pique during a frenetic week at the end of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency I found, rather than exciting as the author portrayed it, a rather appalling look at how Presidential power can be used and abused. While I’m sympathetic to the concept of preserving natural reserves for the nation, I think that it was done poorly and hastily. And that rush, lack of budget, and unscientific approach led to the Big Burn the book is about. In effect, Teddy’s ‘saving’ America was what led to the crisis that left men dead and an industry crippled.

Is the book worth reading? Yes. It’s well done. But I think that it’s best read in conjunction with other histories, for a more balanced look than the author’s highly biased take on the era and sequence of events. The tale of the men who were fighting the fire itself is compelling, wonderfully done, and will thrill you and chill you. For that section alone, I’d say this book is worth the read.

I picked up two books and was reading them simultaneously, one on my tablet at night, one on my phone during lunches. It reflects more on me than the authors, then, that I’ve finished my lunch read already, and not even half-way on the bedtime read! I was surprised and very pleased to discover that Winston Churchill’s The River War is a fresh, readable book (and it’s free!), and one that bears on modern-day global politics. It’s the fascinating tale of the Sudan, the Nile River, religious war, and the insurrection of a sorely-used people. Churchill’s portrayal of the jihaddis, the first jihad, and the Mahdi who proclaimed himself a prophet and led his people into a war is sensitively done for the era. I found it a light read, which is not what I was expecting, but he’s deftly brought it to life. For me, it’s history. For him, it was a war he fought in. I highly recommend it. I also recommend Churchill’s Trial by Larry Arnn as the companion to it, even though I have not finished this book. It’s an interesting look at Churchill’s career, development, and philosophy, and it’s considerably less daunting than the 7 volume biography of Churchill I have barely begun to read on my e-library.