Summers in southern Idaho are dry, straw-brown, and reek of woodsmoke. Our winters are rarely wet enough to keep what seems like the entire state from burning down in the summer. It keeps young men and soldiers busy and the air filled with water- and retardant-loaded aircraft… and, inevitably, it claims lives. Practically everyone in Boise knows someone who is or was a wildland fire fighter or a smokejumper. As you drive around town, every temp agency has a sign out soliciting call center employees and fire fighters. We don’t talk about the fires that often; beyond the occasional comment on the fire helicopters or the poor climate, the topic rarely comes up unless something really dramatic happens. In 1989 – not the first nor the last time – something really dramatic happened, and I was excited and surprised to find it referenced and explored at the head of one of my $2 used books.
Sebastian Junger may have made his name with his The Perfect Storm, but his adventurous streak and probing pen have led him into hot spots – literal and figurative – across the globe. Fire is a collection of essays Junger has written chronicling some of the world’s most dangerous situations.
Fire sucked me in by starting with Idaho forest fires, a topic quite close to home, and then moving to a Colorado forest fire that I remember from my time (13 years?) there. From there, Junger zips us to the Caribbean, Kashmir, Kosovo, Cyprus, the Blackfeet country of the early 1800s, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan. He escapes injury and death, surviving to write exhaustively descriptive accounts of his adventures. By the end of the book, I was tired – the kind of tired you are after a upper-division crash course in international relations. Weeks later, the first and last essays are still sticking in my mind – I’ve learned more about the fire fighting culture in my own state, and about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, than I’d ever learned in years of watching the news.
The introduction, wherein Junger discusses the early stumbles of his career, is one of my favorite parts of the book. The middle of the book drags on a bit, in my opinion, and I found myself occasionally wishing we could move on to the next bit on the syllabus. Reading Fire, though, was never actually boring – and I felt throughout as though I were kind of there myself. It was at no point an easy read, and definitely falls into a more hardcore subset of “creative nonfiction” that won’t appeal to many readers. Those who enjoy the occasional reading challenge, like reading to learn, or are anxious to improve their sleep will almost certainly get a kick out of this deceptively slim volume.
Interestingly, I’ve read several comments/reviews about Fire by people who clearly only read the first essay or two, and think the entire thing is about forest fires. Don’t be misled: it’s war, territorial disputes, the wild American west, whaling, the blood diamond trade – all matter of different situations that inspire, in Junger’s words, “an utterly amoral sense of awe.” (Amoral, not immoral – an important distinction. :))