muirBiographers face an alluring temptation: to tell an entire life. In this book, Julie Danneberg resists the allure and instead tells the story of one intense night in her John Muir’s life. And in the process, we learn all about who the man was.

John Muir settled in Yosemite early, early. He lived in a cabin and then in a sawmill in Yosemite Valley. He would live anywhere as long as it kept him close to the spectacular scenery he loved. One night he hiked to Yosemite Falls and managed to slip behind the waterfall when wind briefly blew it away from the cliff face. That transcendent  moment, seeing the world through the spray of the waterfall, was immediately followed by near-death when the wind dropped and the water returned to its usual path, pounding down on John Muir. Danneberg describes the scene brilliantly: we feel hushed with awe and then stricken with terror and then, finally, amazed with Muir at the grandeur of nature.

The main text is written in present tense and the words are vivid and muscular. The book is designed to have layered text: nearly every spread has, in addition to the main text, a block of text in smaller font, written in past tense, and with an explanatory tone, that adds lots of interesting details about Muir. I’m very glad they’re not included in the main text–interesting as they are, they would have muddied it and slowed down the pace of the story. I read the book through once, ignoring all of the smaller font passages. Then I flipped back to the front and read it through again, this time reading all the smaller font. It’s a method I highly recommend.

Danneberg excels at finding tiny moments that illuminate a life. Her book Monet Paints a Day gives us a vivid portrait of Claude Monet, through the lens of a single day of painting. Here she does the same for John Muir.

John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall, by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Jamie Hogan. Charlesbridge: 2015.