Sunday, June 19, 2011

a book review

care to read a book review today?

here’s one on The Big Burn by Jeannette Ingold.



The Big Burn: A Singeing Historical Novel

“The wildfires lay behind a brown haze that was beginning to shroud mountaintops and drift like dirty fog through the forests of the Idaho panhandle. Though no one then knew it, they were fires that would join ranks and run in a vast wall of flame. When they did, it would be called the big blowup, the great burn, the Big Burn.”

So begins the dramatic true story of Wallace and Avery, two small towns in the Idaho panhandle, 1910. Three teens face the flames, and in the process, find that hope can be the greatest strength there is. Jeannette Ingold’s book The Big Burn is a story with a plot thick enough to keep you guessing, characters realistic enough to identify with, and a message that encourages readers to never ever give up hope.

Ingold masterfully pulls her plot together, making her historical novel one that is extremely accurate. In the back of the book, she notes several resources for her information that show that Ingold has done her homework. One newspaper that she quotes is The Idaho Press of 1910, actually giving the reader real reports on the fires from the cities of Wallace and Avery. Her characters read this newspaper to keep up on the news of the fire, which links the fictional characters to this nonfiction event. Another source is “I’ll Never Fight Fire with My Bare Hands Again”: Recollections of the First Forest Rangers of the Inland Northwest, written by Hal Rothman. This book is a record of interviews of multiple rangers of the northwest, including Idaho. The Big Burn: The Northwest’s Great Forest Fire of 1910, by Stan Cohen and Don Miller, is another example of credible sources. This book includes facts and interviews with people who were there: Thaddeus Roe, a firefighter trying to save Avery, Idaho from the wall of flames; Mr. Swain, a surveyor of the Coeur D’Alene area; and Ed Pulaski, a firefighter who would go down in history as the man who saved his crew.

When the blowup engulfs Pulaski’s firefighting area south of Wallace, he directs the forty or more men he was given into an old mining tunnel. In his autobiography, Pulaski gives his take on the Big Burn: “The wind was blowing so hard it almost lifted men out of their saddles. Trees were falling all around us.” Ingold confirms this by including his heroic story to save his fire crew in the Big Burn, giving us a real look into something that actually occurred. Her retelling of Pulaski’s story is as follows. “West of Placer Creek, Ed Pulaski gathered about forty men who’d been cut off by the flames and eventually got them into a mining tunnel that had a small stream running through it… and he held back at gunpoint those who became so frightened that they tried to bolt.” In reading of the things that these men faced, it thickens the plot, bringing the reader into the real story and not just one that was invented by an imaginative author.

People who are more knowledgeable about the Coeur d’Alene fires may find a few points in the book where Ingold uses some creative liberties on the true history. I could not find any such points, and only noted how she included her characters in the story. The book is written to be historically accurate while at the same time personal. Ingold could have written like a historical document, but if she had, her creativeness is lost in the facts of the story. In short, Ingold takes minor creative liberties to make her book more enjoyable to read.

Throughout the story, Ingold uses the drama and intensity of the story to enhance her plot. When the fires come upon the firefighters, the roar is deafening and the white flames blinding the reader’s eyes- all while sitting on their couch. Publishers Weekly says that “Ingold captures the momentum of a wildfire.” Ingold is able to masterfully weave an intricate story through her clear, concise writing and her passionate adjectives that are used throughout the book. For example, right before the blowup on August 20, she uses the point of view of a National Forest Service recruiter to give you an idea of the stress that permeated everything move they made:

“As he often did when looking at his fire map, Mr. Polson pictured a firefighter. Sometimes the imagined man would be a middle-aged immigrant in shabby clothes; sometimes he’d be a young man out to prove himself, sometimes he’d be a young settler carrying a pocket watch with a photograph of his family fitted inside its case. Always, he had ash in his hair and soot ground into his skin. He was hot and tired and hungry and thirsty, and always, always, in harm’s way.”

In writing with such simple yet vivid words, Ingold produces a feeling of sympathy, anger, and sadness in her reader. This in turn forces the reader to flip the page in order to see the outcome.

Ingold’s characters are her strongest motivators to keep reading her book. She provides for the reader multiple personalities to identify with. She reaches out and shows the teen reader, whom this book is directed at, that she understands them well. There is Jarrett, the teen in search of a better future, and willing to work as a firefighter to make his mark. Then there’s Seth, an African American boy learning to be a man, and officer, as great as his father in the army. Seth is surprised when he ends up not fighting men, but fires. The female hero of the story is Lisbeth, a young teenager in love with the land she lives on with her aunt. Ingold deftly weaves their stories together into an unforgettable tale. Whether these characters find themselves together or apart, their deeply human attributes make their personalities relatable.

While some people may not agree that the characters are relatable, they shouldn’t have any problem with this. Nearly everyone can think of a time when they were stubborn enough to stay in a dangerous situation. Lisbeth shows this in staying with her land, even in the growing threat of fires. Grown men and women will be able to identify with the struggle and hard work that Jarrett faces to become something in the world. What about Seth, the young soldier who tries to live up to the fame of his father? Those of us who have at one time tried to live up to the expectations of man will be able to sympathize with his disappointment. Because they know that in doing so, all he has found is emptiness.

While readers may still not be able to relate to the characters, they need to realize something. It is virtually impossible to include every personality type there is in a single book. Ingold instead chooses to use a variety of the more commonly recognized characteristics such as talkative, quiet, simple, picky, the brave and those who would rather run and hide. In doing so, she sets up the story so that most or all of her readers would be able to identify with one kind of character.

When the story comes to the climax, the reader comes face to face with the real reason for it all. This tale of courage, determination, and love-of-the-land comes together into one single line that gives the book its meaning and purpose: Never, ever give up hope. Sadly, to many readers today, this sounds cheesy and boring. “Why read a book that ends on a good note?” For those who would disregard the book simply because of its theme: this story is real. It’s not a figment of the imagination, the conglomeration of thoughts one human author put together. Ingold does not take away from the story in that she shouts the truth of the story- the miracle of it all- from the very first page to its last. Ingold gives a beacon-book for this theme, and it is displayed through her character’s determination to survive the catastrophe they are faced with. While walls of flame engulf towns, send settlers running, and even the army goes home, what is there left? There are those who meant from the start that they were going to survive in this land no matter the costs. Those who refuse to give up hope, and they are the ones to reap its benefits.

Throughout this story, readers will encounter history untold, strong characters and the real heroes, and a message that will shine through the smoke of life. When Ingold chooses this topic, she did so because of its significance to her; Her son is a firefighter for the forest service. However, in her passion of the subject, she comes up with a story that will singe the hairs on the heads of all who read it. Ingold’s book is well-worth the quick read, and its fast-paced plot will keep the reader thrilled. While other books choose to end in darkness, this historical novel shines through with the truth that hope is a powerful ally. This book keeps the stories of the heroes of Coeur d’Alene alive and will leave a burning impression on all its reader’s lives.

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