Summer Reading


When our daughter was young we were eager to encourage her to read. Actually, desperate might be a better word. I favored childhood classics that were read to me in my youth: “Treasure Island,” “Heidi,” “The Jungle Book” and “Black Beauty.” But, to my great dismay, none appealed to our daughter.

I was so eager to encourage reading that I told her I’d buy her any book she wanted. And so it was that in a gift shop in Yellowstone National Park my 13-year-old daughter found the volume that would change her life, a book that ought to be read aloud at her wedding.

The book is not “Little House on the Prairie,” “Little Women” or “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” It’s “Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park” by Lee H. Whittlesey. 

Molly is 26 now, lives in Washington, D.C., has a good job and reads widely—all thanks to the life-changing prose of Lee H. Whittlesey. But “Death in Yellowstone” ain’t for the faint of heart, pilgrim. The book jacket features a suitable scene of a Yellowstone hot springs with steam rising—over which is superimposed a headstone!

Under that jacket are 300 pages of heavily documented, well-sourced and footnoted mayhem and mauling, chronicling collisions of man and beast (with man typically on the losing side). “Death in Yellowstone” makes zombies and vampires look like kittens at play. Molly could not put it down. She read aloud to us as we drove around Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Death on every page! Family fun!

Whittlesey was no mere sensationalist. He was a veteran guide, park ranger and historical archivist at Yellowstone National Park. And his book is a blow-by-blow (literally) accounting of hair-raising and horrifying things that happen to hapless tourists in the wild. 

His style resembles that of a government report and an autopsy.  No frills. Just the facts—though Brother Whittlesey does have a tendency to scold folks who do stupid things in nature.

Some died from bison goring or were eaten (literally) by a bear.  Others experienced writhing ends that came from ingesting poisonous plants. Drunks who, in the wee hours, decided a dip in a boiling hot springs was just the ticket learned that it was not. Poached like an egg! Whittlesey also reports on death by freezing, death by avalanche, falling rocks, falling trees, fire, flood and lightning. Pestilence, too! “Death in Yellowstone” may fairly be said to have it all.

One of our favorite accounts was the demise of one Alain Jean-Jacques Dumont, 21, of Toulouse, France. Monsieur Dumont wanted a souvenir of his visit to the Wild West and thought it advisable to engage in a closeup photo-op with a bison bull. Visitors are cautioned NEVER to do this. Signs all over Yellowstone warn, “Many visitors have been gored by buffalo,” and explain that the seemingly docile beast is capable of running 30 mph (three times faster than a man) and can weigh 2,000 pounds.

As the signs say, “These animals may appear tame but are wild, unpredictable and dangerous.”  But Monsieur Dumont had to see for himself.

As Whittlesey reports, “Alain Dumont had his camera up and must have seen the charge through its viewfinder. He turned abruptly to his left and the bison’s horn caught him in the right kidney, ripping him open with a vengeance.

Dumont sustained a torn colon, a punctured stomach, a severely damaged spleen and four broken ribs.”  And then the conclusion: “The spleen infection was probably what killed him.”  Whittlesey had us with that sentence. Prose so clean that Hemingway would have approved.

Our daughter swooned to every gory and horrifying detail. And we swooned, too. She was reading a book of real prose! Sure, there was lots of blood, lots of guts. But there was also rock solid practical advice on every page. Life advice, like DON’T FEED THE BEARS. If it were up to me, I would see to it that every American child had a copy on his or her nightstand.

We had a magical family vacation in the Wild West and have cherished this volume in our home ever since. It is what we have in lieu of a family Bible, and we are forever grateful to Mr. Whittlesey for making our daughter a voracious reader.

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