Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pg. 69: Matthew Desmond's "On the Fireline"

The current feature at the Page 69 Test: Matthew Desmond's On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters.

About the book, from the publisher:
Burning to death is a hellish way to die. Yet every year men and women across the country risk their lives for low pay to fight forest fires. Living in remote encampments and isolated from their friends and family, these firefighters stand ready to chase smoke at a moment’s notice. And when a fire does break out, they face a chaotic inferno armed with only hand tools, hard hats, and little else. So what motivates them to put their lives on the line and face heat so intense it can melt steel?

In this rugged account of a rugged profession, Matthew Desmond explores the heart and soul of the wildland firefighter. Having joined a firecrew in Northern Arizona as a young man, Desmond relates his experiences with intimate knowledge and native ease, adroitly balancing emotion with analysis, action with insight. On the Fireline shows that these firefighters aren’t the adrenaline junkies or romantic heroes they’re so often portrayed as. Their choice to take on such hazardous work grows naturally from their rural, working-class values, which the Forest Service taps into as it conditions them to risk their lives. Along with exploring how firefighters become acclimated to the hazards of the job, On the Fireline candidly examines the more everyday facets of their lives as well — we hear their jokes, witness their fights, and observe the close bonds they form while waiting for the next alarm to sound.

Matthew Desmond’s revealing and often gripping book is truly one of a kind: an immersion into a dangerous world, a moving portrait of the lives of young people, a sophisticated analysis of a high-risk profession — and a captivating read.
Among the early praise for On the Fireline:

“Rich in gritty detail, Matthew Desmond’s sociological study of a firecrew is a welcome addition to the literature of wildfire. His four years on a backcountry Forest Service crew provide authentic material — sometimes startlingly so — for his observations. If you want a look behind the flames to see what drives these people to come back year after blistering year then read this book.”
—John N. Maclean, author of Fire on the Mountain

On the Fireline is a riveting account of firemen of the U.S. Forest Service tackling wildland fires, as well as a detailed chronicle of the training, preparation, and bonhomie of depot life. By exploring how joining a firecrew matches, confirms, and extends the values of the rural culture within which the recruits grew up, Desmond offers a unique perspective on the social and psychological motivations for firefighting. The richness of the data he uncovers and his arresting style of presentation make this a distinctive and evocative work.”
—Paul Willis, author of Learning to Labor

“In recent years, ethnographers have tried to face up to the Bourdieuian challenge of showing how aspects of culture are rooted in daily practices and bodies. In this beautifully written work of participant observation, Matthew Desmond takes us into the world of wildland firefighters to help us better understand the dynamics of dangerous organizations and the workers who hold the line. At the same time, he moves ethnography forward: rather than following the all too common procedure of asserting the existence of knowledges that ‘go without saying’ for his subjects, Desmond shows in detail how habitus actually operates in everyday life.”
—Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk and Slim’s Table
Read an excerpt from On the Fireline, learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website, and check out Matthew Desmond's research program and vita.

The Page 69 Test: On the Fireline.

--Marshal Zeringue