This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
On August 5, 1949, a suddenly ferocious forest fire killed 13 young men in a remote region of Montana called the Gates of the Mountains. While the embers of the fire were still glowing, a 46 year old man walked over the blackened terrain. The walk became a journey, and the journey lasted about 40 years. The man needed all of those 40 years in a figurative wilderness to find the 13 men by finding himself in them. The point of the journey was to “make things right” for the young men who had died, for the universe that fanned the fire that killed them, and for himself in his ongoing effort to discover his own identity. On the way to accomplishing this almost incomprehensible task, the man would discover that he might well have been the only person on earth who could have accomplished it and that the fire might have been the only fire ever to have circled around to explain itself. The man’s name was Norman Maclean, and the record of his journey is entitled Young Men and Fire.
Maclean is better known for his first work of fiction, A River Runs through It, which he began to write after he retired from his teaching position at the University of Chicago in 1972 at the age of 70. But Young Men and Fire, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1992, was a far more ambitious undertaking than the shorter novella. Maclean wondered whether he could find a story in Mann Gulch that would give meaning to the deaths of the young men. And he insisted that the story had to be true, not something he invented and then imposed upon what actually happened. He hoped, in other words, that the discovery of an order within nature that would give the struggle between young men and fire a tragic shape might help to assuage the grief of those who still mourned for them, and also might remove the moral bewilderment felt by all of us in the face of natural catastrophes.
The stakes of success in this imaginative effort were very high. Though the drama Maclean describes unfolded in a dry gulch only two-and-a half miles long, its implications were potentially without bounds. If he could show that this seemingly random and insensate natural disaster actually had a meaningful shape, it might be possible to imagine that all natural catastrophes could be understood in a similar way. The universe, pressed hard enough through close study, might yield secrets that would make its seeming cruelty or indifference at least intelligible, if not altogether redeemed.
Young Men and Fire belongs to a large family of imaginative works that stretch the boundaries of ordinary literary conventions in order to “make things right,” to achieve through writing itself some kind of justice. Sometimes within these works justice involves reconciliation, redemption, and consolation, as it did in Maclean’s book. In other imaginative works, the terms of justice differ and involve apology, repentance, pardon, or forgiveness. Some writers seek to “make things right” between estranged family members, others between strangers who have wronged one another deliberately or accidentally, still others between groups that have been hostile to one another for centuries.
Almost all of the writers who set out to do justice in and through their writing find themselves drawing primarily upon their imaginations, of course, but also on other emotional and intellectual reserves. Young Men and Fire, for example, was also a work of grieving, a way of Maclean’s coming to terms with his wife’s death in 1968. The deep links between personal loss and injustice, between grieving and restoration, give Maclean’s book its peculiar strength.
In everyday life, our efforts to “make things right” take place within vastly different domains that are governed by widely disparate conventions. Efforts to remedy the damages done to a stranger who slips on our unsalted sidewalk might well take place in a courtroom. Efforts to reconcile estranged groups often involve the arts of diplomacy and collective bargaining and take place in secret meetings over many years. Efforts to “make things right” with God involve public religious rituals and personal prayer. Repairing broken marriages often entails psychological counseling; broken homes are sometimes mended by social workers. Because these efforts are in so many ways strikingly different from one another and draw upon people who possess many different professional skills—social workers, ministers, psychological counselors, lawyers, judges, diplomats—we are seldom able to see how justice-seeking in one domain might learn from parallel processes in others, or to discover whether some resources might inform and strengthen the work of all of us in every domain.
Works like Young Men and Fire or Ian McEwan’s Atonement or Shakespeare’s King Lear or Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull actually do provide resources for all of us no matter what our particular efforts to do justice in our world might entail and require. Moreover, they enable us to see what we might not see within courtrooms or cathedrals or conference centers, namely, that all efforts to achieve justice to some extent turn upon the work of the imagination.
In complicated and vitally important matters, making things right takes time. This much is obvious. Less obvious perhaps is that making things right involves giving shape to time. More exactly, making things right depends upon giving agreeable shape to time through the stories that we tell, share, and with which we live. These stories might be enshrined in legal case law or developed collaboratively in therapy sessions or agreed upon as part of overall diplomatic settlements. Imagination, rightly exercised, will determine how good these stories are as a way of achieving justice and as a foundation for living well together in the future.