Maclean’s son, John, blazes own path

January 22, 2013 11:56 am

John Maclean, son of a

“If you listen carefully, the words are underneath the water,” said Norman Maclean’s father as they sat on the bank of the Big Blackfoot River in “A River Runs Through It.”

Norman Maclean’s story about a family, its passion for each other and for trout fishing is the theme of this year’s Wallowa County Community Read.

Words, rivers and familial love are the treasures the Maclean family hands down from generation to generation. Norman’s son, John, is an acclaimed author in his own right with four published books on forest fire tragedies.

His introduction to the theme was while his father was working on “Young Men and Fire,” a story of 1940s smoke jumpers killed in the Mann Gulch Fire on the breaks of the Missouri River in Montana.

“I first read it 10 to 12 years before my father died,” said Maclean. “He started out to do what I do, a re-creation of an event, and he was wrestling with it. It started to change from a straightforward, nonfiction narrative to a very personal, very literary account which happens to be about a tragedy.”

Maclean said, “I became engaged with the subject as a consequence. Then South Canyon Fire came along and it was a mirror image of Mann Gulch. People said I had to write a book, but I did not want to get hooked into my father’s shadow.”

Maclean worked as a reporter and editor for the Chicago Tribune for 30 years until March 31, 1995, when the iconic paper was offering buyouts and early retirements to its employees. Maclean was only 52 and too young to officially retire.

“Quitting the Tribune was kind of dramatic. I wrote a proposal for ‘Fire on the Mountain’ and had an agent negotiating at an auction which closed at 10 a.m. There was a noon buy-out at the Tribune. I made the deadline, which didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.”

The following day he said he jumped in his jeep and drove to Storm King Mountain outside of Glenwood Springs, Colo., to meet Bob and Nadine Mackey, parents of Don Mackey, a smokejumper killed in the South Canyon Fire.

The Mackeys were on the mountain as part of an exercise to put in markers memorializing the dead firefighters, said Maclean, and Storm King quickly became his office.

“Having the Mackeys there opened a lot of interviews I wouldn’t have gotten on my own,” said Maclean.

“Fire on the Mountain” was published in 1999. It was followed four years later by “Fire and Ashes: On the Frontlines of American Wildfire,” named a “best book of the year” by the Chicago Tribune.

In 2001, the Thirtymile Fire killed four firefighters in a remote, northern Washington canyon. It became the theme of Maclean’s third book.

He said parents of one the victims talked to him and said, “Our kids are getting screwed. Will you look into this?” 

“The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal,” was published in 2007.

Maclean’s fourth book, about the Esperanza Fire, was also written by request.

“Bad investigations have made my career,” said Maclean.

He said it seemed like this was another such case. Survivors had nowhere to turn for justice except to him. They wanted him to write the truth.

“That’s not always easy to live with and it doesn’t always come out the way people want it to. I let the chips fall where they may,” said Maclean.

A “gag” order kept him from talking to some of the key survivors of the fire, so when he attended a dinner in October 2011 commemorating the five-year anniversary, he thought he was finished with the book. At the dinner he ran into Julie Hutchison, a public affairs officer for Cal Fire, who said the agency had a new director. A sudden change in politics gained him access to key eyewitnesses.

“It was read by cops, captains, a family member — it was a democratic project, a group effort over an extended time,” said Maclean.

The book was six years in the making and self-financed.

“I don’t think this will happen again easily. I am looking for someone to take over for me, but to do it you have to damn near be independently wealthy or old enough to take Social Security and a pension while writing it,” said Maclean. 

What would he like to do next?

“I was talking to my son, a public defender for the state of Maryland, and I said, ‘I’d, like to write a murder mystery,’ but I just wrote a very good murder mystery. It’s called ‘Esperanza Fire’!”

Writing is in the blood — his uncle was a reporter at the Helena Independent Record nearly a century ago, and his father wrote one of the most beloved stories of the late 20th century. He said he became a writer because, “I can’t do anything else.”

He said the same thing about his father’s writing.

“My take on it is my father wrote what he was meant to write. Maybe that’s what was in him that could be made into fine literature — family, fishing and fire,” said Maclean.

Maclean will read from “The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder, and the Agony of Engine 57” Feb. 4 at Fishtrap Coffin House, 400 Grant St. in Enterprise.