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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What I'm Reading: American Buffalo and The Big Burn

Last month I listened to two audio books with similar subject headings, but very different styles, tones, and feel. Both American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella and The Big Burn: Teddy Rooevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan are about the history of the American West. Both have a focus on the natural beauty of the West. And both have a tone that is nostalgic for a by gone era while still being critical of the mistakes we, as Americans, have made in the past in regards to how we treated the preservation of our natural landscape.

Finally, both utilize tricks from fiction to make their stories more compelling. Like a suspense novel, each begins with a scene that puts us at the climax of the book, and then backs up to go back to the beginning. You are compelled to keep reading to get back to, in Rinella's case, the moment when he has killed his Buffalo, and in Egan's case, the evacuation of the women and children from a frontier town threatened by a huge forest fire.

I want to start with American Buffalo because it serves as a great example of appeal vs. subject heading. On the surface, American Buffalo is about hunting for Buffalo. Personally, I am not a fan of hunting or guns, and quite honestly, although buffalo interest me, but I don't really think about them unless I am at the zoo or eating a yummy buffalo burger here or here.

However, when the book first came out I heard Rinella interviewed on NPR. Talking about why he wrote the book, his intense love and obsession with the buffalo, and how this book was the culmination of a quest for personal discovery, made me put the book on my to read list immediately.

While the subject headings for this book are things like "Hunting" and "Sports Literature," the appeal is in the way these things are described. Rinella recounts the history of buffalo in America, American expansion, natural history, and his own personal story about getting a permit to trek into the Alaskan wild and kill is own buffalo.  This was much more a narrative history of buffalo and a personal story of self discovery all rolled into one, rather than a pro-hunting diatribe.

My only problem with the book came from its informal structure as a personal narrative.  At times, I felt like my 5 year-old son wrote the book, as Rinella goes into stretches where he is spitting out every fact he knows about Buffalo for minutes at a time before returning to the narrative.

On the more formal side of nonfiction about conservation and American expansion into the West, is Pulitizer Prize winner Timothy Egan's The Big Burn. Egan is an accomplished historian. All of his books offer a nice balance of well researched history, charcater development and a compelling storyline. Unlike Rinella's personal, diary like tone, Egan's works are professional but compelling narrative histories. Egan the man in not part of the story himself, rather, he lets the adventure, intrigue, danger, and people of history speak for themselves. I think I could read any book he writes, no matter the subject because, again, like Rinella, it is how he writes, not the subject, that makes his books appealing to me.

Specifically, The Big Burn is about the friendship between Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt and their fight to start a government sponsored conservation movement in the United States

In an interview on Amazon.com Egan said of these two men:
I was hugely impressed with Roosevelt and his chief forester, a very strange and original American now nearly lost to our history named Gifford Pinchot. These were two easterners, born into wealth, who crusaded a century ago for the Progressive Era idea that a democracy and public land were inextricably linked. They always talked about land belonging to “the little guy.” It was a radical idea then, at a time when the gulf between the rich and poor was never greater. Roosevelt and Pinchot were both traitors to their class, in that sense.
Of course, the seminal moment in the history of the Forest Service is the giant forest fire ta the center of this book described in amazing detail by Egan. He intersperses the action based storyline of the fire with the history of the time, place and people involved. I cannot say enough about how well Egan captures the events and people. I was literally riveted by this story, not to mention the interesting and eccentric people involved.

Since I listened to both of these, I would like to make a few comments on the audio.  First, Rinella's book incorporates the endnotes into the audio, while to read the footnotes in Egan's work, you would need to get a hard copy of the work. The Big Burn also has great photos which I went and looked at after I listened to the audio. You can see many of them now right here. Although, Egan does such a great job describing the fire and its effects that I could literally visualize the event as I listened to the book.

Three Words That Describe American Buffalo: Buffalo, Personal Quest, Obsession
Three Words That Describe The Big Burn: Fire, Forgotten History, Preservation

American Buffalo is very similar to Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, except in Rinella's book we have a happy ending. Also, Rinella's personal, almost diary like writing style focusing on the nature that the average American never experiences, was very reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau.

Rinella also spends a bit of time talking about the migration of the first people to North America. Those who found this part of the story appealing should look at Katherine and Michael Gear's series, The First North Americans.

And for those who just love reading about buffalo, use this link.

Over to The Big Burn, Egan's criticism of the Forest Service is muted. He makes apologies for the well meaning people who got usurped by corrupt politicians.  For a more no holds barred approach to the beginnings of the National Forest Service watch Ken Burns' National Parks documentary or read the companion book.

Some readers may want to read more about the times and people in Egan's book. You can click here for books about Teddy Roosevelt, the National Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, or the early 20th Century Progressives.

Readers of either book who want some fiction which evokes the beauty of the Western landscape should try Leif Enger or Ivan Doig.

Navada Barr has an excellent mystery series featuring her amateur detective/National Park Ranger Anna Pigeon. Each book is set in a different National Park and any would appeal to fans of either of these books.

Alaska and the Western US are also popular settings for mysteries. Click here for some suggestions based on location. Specifically, I would suggest C.J. Box, Dana Stabenow, Sue Henry, or the late Tony Hillerman as good examples.

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