New Novel Explores 1910 “Big Burn” Mystery About the "Hero" of Avery, Idaho

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The backdrop to the Big Burn of 1910 has enough drama to fill volumes, and novelist W. John MacGregor touches it all—from Teddy Roosevelt’s bully-pulpit conservationism to the assassination of Idaho’s Governor Steunenberg. Yet the story no one has wanted to want to talk much about—until MacGregor—is exactly what happened in Avery, Idaho over those few days in August 1910. MacGregor’s taut novel West of the Gospel doesn’t answer history’s thorny questions, but the fiery light that it sheds on the mystery casts some pretty long and compelling shadows.

West of the Gospel, 0-9787554-5-6

MacGregor writes with a distinct, persuasive 1910 storytelling voice. And the storytelling burns like a fever dream, full of surreal details. As you turn the pages of this forest-fire narrative, you'll swear they leave soot on your fingertips.

The release of W. John MacGregor's novel West of the Gospel on August 17 is bound to stir some smoldering embers, timed as it is to coincide with region-wide Centennial observations of the Big Burn of 1910.

In August of 1910, epic and unprecedented wildfire burned millions of acres, killed scores of firefighters, and destroyed or threatened scores of towns in Idaho and Montana. On August 28 of that year, the Seattle Sunday Times lauded Forest Ranger Thaddeus Roe as the “Hero of Avery,” Idaho, and credited his leadership with saving the remote railroad town by backfire. Immediately afterward, the mysterious Roe disappeared from the historical record.

Over the next century, Thaddeus Roe has been gradually expunged from authoritative accounts of the fire.

1956 – Betty Spencer’s The Big Blowup, the first exhaustive account of the public record regarding the fires, merely reprints the Sunday Times story about Thaddeus Roe without further elaboration.

1980 - In Up the Swiftwater, Avery locals Sandra Crowell and David Asleson assert that Roe's account is merely the product of "an overactive imagination" (p. 93).

2001 – Historian Stephen J. Pyne, in The Year of the Fires, suggests that the "perhaps fictitious" Thaddeus Roe was merely a "report's composite" sketch (pp. 157, 175).

2009 – Pulitzer Prize-winner Timothy Egan, in his lauded document The Big Burn, fails to even mention the tale of Thaddus Roe... yet ambiguously cites the August 28, 1910 Sunday Times article as an authoritative source regarding the events in Avery.

And now, in 2010, Thaddeus Roe finds himself as the central character of a historical novel set against the backdrop of the great fire of 1910.

First-time novelist W. John MacGregor has long been a student of Pacific Northwest history, and the mystery and confusion surrounding the events in Avery in August of 1910 fascinated him from the first time he heard the story. “Here you had probably one of the most complicated and scandalous political hot-potatoes in the nation’s pre-war period,” says MacGregor, “and nobody involved—not the fledgling Forest Service, the newspapers, the sheriff’s office, nor the officers of the 25th Infantry—can tell the same story about what happened in Avery. It’s more bizarre than The Usual Suspects. Yet it all gets swept conveniently under the carpet. By everyone.”

From labor movements to congressional reform to Teddy Roosevelt’s bully-pulpit conservationism to the assassination of Idaho’s Governor Steunenberg, the backdrop to the Big Burn has enough drama to fill volumes. Yet the story no one seems to want to talk much about—until MacGregor—touches it all. What exactly happened in Avery over those few days in August 1910? Who was Thaddeus Roe? Who were the heroes, and who were the villains?

MacGregor’s tight fictional narrative, which spans the frontier from Libby, Montana to Idaho’s Gospel Mountain, doesn’t propose to answer any of those thorny questions—but the light that it sheds on the mystery casts some pretty long and compelling shadows.

“MacGregor writes with a distinct, persuasive 1910 storytelling voice. And the storytelling burns like a fever dream, full of surreal details. As you turn the pages of this forest-fire narrative, you'll swear they leave soot on your fingertips.” –Jeffrey Overstreet

West of the Gospel, by W. John MacGregor, is the first entry in a series of tales based on the legends of the Fewkes Brothers, outlaws of the Pacific Northwest.

West of the Gospel will appear simultaneously in hardback and trade paper (0-9787554-5-6 and 0-9787554-6-4, respectively). The book is being distributed by Partners/West and Ingram. Street date August 17, 2010. Order date July 1, 2010.

West of the Gospel Official Site

Follow W. John MacGregor on Facebook

W. John MacGregor is available for interviews, and will be touring Idaho and Montana to support the release of the book.

For media requests, please contact Greg Wright at 206-241-6149.

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