Sunday, May 15, 2011

#26: Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown

Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2006

I had no idea that the event this book describes ever happened. Imagine discovering that in 1894 a forest fire burned nearly 500 square miles of Minnesota and Wisconsin. It burned two towns and at least three villages to the ground, killing roughly 450 people. Roughly 30% of the victims were unrecognizable, and almost all are currently buried in mass trench graves in Hinckley, Minnesota.

The author's Great-grandfather was one of the victims, which is why he undertook the book. Mr. Brown's description of the fire is absolutely frightening, well written and disturbing. But, it is the stories and the historical information that makes this an excellent book. One gets at a glance the importance of the train to small towns like Hinckley, Sandstone, Pine City, Pokegama; cities that are now dying out because they are bypassed by interstates. Indeed, the rescue of nearly 500 citizens from Hinckley on a train is the centerpiece of the text. This book sounds like a disaster movie: imagine 500 people crammed on a double-engined train, running backward at full throttle while the passengers swat at small fires with pillows, hands, blankets. Estimates from Best and Barry (the engineers) were that the fire was moving at nearly 40 miles an hour. If this was in a movie, I would not believe it.

The author pulls together survivor stories, information on the Great Pullman Strike (in which one of the heroes walked off his job and was arrested), scientific explanations of the firestorm itself (which was absolutely fascinating) to create a book that is, quite simply, a little strange. I am not sure that the fire changed America; what emerges from the description of the relief efforts is the incredible generosity of the citizens of Minnesota. Brown mentions that anyone waiting for government help after Hurricane Katrina would have recognized the slowness of the reaction of the government (state or national) in Hinckley. The privately set up "relief organizations" should also give pause to those who think that non-profits can provide disaster relief on their own. If your dad was a "no good drunk", or you were a woman who "was given to flirt", you could expect no help from the relief organizations after the fire. It didn't matter that you lost everything in a fire, what mattered were your personal habits and churchgoing record. This was the only part of this true story that I actually found believable.

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