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Cannonball Read #25 (5K Book 4 -- Non-Fiction): Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown

When I was a kid, our house burned down. I was nine, and it was two days before Christmas. I don't remember much about it--it was the middle of the night, and I was rousted by my bed from my mother and hurried down the stairs and out the front door into the chilly drizzle in my nightgown. What I DO remember was looking back through the front door and seeing my father come running down the hall from the back of the house while the fire blew in the back windows and followed him down the hallway. It's a memory I haven't thought of much in the ensuing eighteen years, but reading Under a Flaming Sky brought it back...and made me realize how very lucky we were to have all escaped the fire that destroyed our home unharmed.

On Labor Day in 1894, a wildfire swept out of the woods in Minnesota, destroying everything in its path. One of the things that lay in its path was the small lumber town of Hinckley. Daniel James Brown (whose grandfather was actually a survivor of Hinckley) lays out in detail the broad circumstances that led to the fire--adverse weather conditions, poor forest management, nature's normal course--and also how those circumstances effected specific members of the Hinckley community. Brown not only tells those personal stories, using historical accounts to pull together a moment-by-moment human account of the tragedy and resulting heroism, but he also goes into the science of fire, the history of burn treatment at the time, the psychology of disaster and its effects on the psyche, and the politics and culture of the time. It's both incredibly detailed and incredibly personal. At the end, he visits modern Hinckley to see how the town has survived. Beyond the final chapter (at least in the edition I read) was an interview with Brown discussing his family attachment to the story and how he came to write the book.

It's a fascinating read, though I'll admit that I had to read some of the heavy scientific passages more than once in order to fully understand what was going on. Obviously, it's not really a cheerful read, but it's extremely interesting if you're interested in the history of the time, the area, or stories of amazing heroism. I'd highly recommend this book to any fan of non-fiction.


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