June 29, 1999, Mother’s birthday, and I am on my way to prison. For five years, I have been trying to understand the passion of a violent, tender boy — now this is where he leads me.

Norman Maclean is one of my heroes. At the age of 74, he devoted himself to the story of Young Men and Fire. His words guide me: “Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts.”

My desire to restore the missing parts of Flint Zimmer’s short and troubled life has compelled me to climb alone in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Absaroka Mountains of Montana. I have visited nine Indian Reservations: Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Cheyenne, Flathead, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Crow. Like Flint and his Métis ancestors, I have wandered, hungry. I’ve been charged by a buffalo bull, chased by mountain goats, and visited in my cabin by an auburn bear too starved to hibernate. Every vision of the journey brings revelation and a lost piece of the story: a mahogany piano crackles in flame; a rusted Pontiac Torpedo soars; five gray union suits fat with wind blow like headless men on a clothesline.

One cold March day in Indianapolis, I learn to shoot a Taurus 85 revolver and a 9mm pistol. If sixteen-year-old Flint and his ten-year-old sister Cecile are going to handle these weapons, I believe I need to know them. Gary, my teacher, is a paraplegic in a wheelchair, a man wounded in a robbery when he was seventeen and working nights at a gas station. I fire his .357 Magnum, battering the chest of the paper target. The noise scares me as much as the recoil. “What’s to fear?” Gary says. “You just fired one of the baddest guns on the market, and nobody’s dead or even wounded.”

He speaks without irony. There is mystery at the center of every life, what cannot be explained or rendered in human language.

When Norman Maclean died at the age of 87, he believed his manuscript was unfinished — not because it was inadequate, but because its mysteries sustained his compassion and curiosity. On August 5, 1949, fifteen of the United States Forest Service’s elite airborne firefighters, the Smokejumpers, leaped from their small plane and parachuted to the edge of a remote blaze in Montana. They thought they were invincible. One hour later, twelve were dead or mortally burned.

White crosses on the hillside of Mann Gulch in the Gates of the Mountains north of Helena mark the places where each firefighter fell. The day Norman Maclean climbed the steep slope of Mann Gulch, he was almost 80 years old, and the heat at the bottom peaked at 130 degrees. Not a day of fire, just an ordinarily brutal day in August. Breathless and dehydrated, the old man felt his legs and lungs and heart failing him. He grabbed fistfuls of grass to pull himself to the top. He needed to follow each firefighter’s path, to contemplate and imagine each one’s separate suffering. He would not leave his young Smokejumpers until he was able to say: “If now the dead of this fire should awaken and I should be stopped beside a cross, I would no longer be nervous if asked the first and last question of life, How did it happen?”

I am not nearly so brave or noble. I want to be done with my novel, Sweet Hearts. I am ready to let Flint Zimmer and his family go: the deaf aunt who signs his story, the little sister who becomes his victim and accomplice. Like Flint’s own mother, I am relieved whenever he is gone. With Flint locked up, we both feel safer.

I hope the visit to Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge is my last piece of research. I seek only physical details: walls and toilets and wires and rivers, cows and horses on the prison ranch, snow glittering high on distant mountains. Hawks, Kestrels, Pileated Woodpeckers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Warbling Vireos, and a hundred thieving Magpies will make Flint’s arrival real.

In the High Security Unit, the chained man who is removed from his cage so that I can enter is not much older than the child in my story. He has stuffed his air vents with spitballs of toilet paper to keep from freezing. The guard removes each tiny wad. I measure the white cinderblock cell, 12 footlengths by 7. I read the graffiti: Be Not Afraid. Jesus Rules. I stare at the window that is not a window but a four-inch wide translucent slat.

In the Minimum Security Unit Library, I see the tiny prisons within the prison, a birdcage and aquarium. Three yellow-headed cockatiels are free for the day, one happy pair, and one recently widowed male. I’m told he cried constantly in the days after his partner died, until someone had the brilliant idea of giving him a mirror. He thinks his reflection is his mate. Now he sings and pecks at the glass. It is a metaphor too perfect to use in a novel.

Along every walkway, flowers bloom: poppies and columbines, bleeding hearts and petunias. The man who has planted them once kidnapped a female athlete. He wanted a strong wife for his son. Now, he is a gardener.

Inmates here do 45% of the state’s Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Together, they have painted huge canvases of Montana’s four seasons — not from sight, but from memory, and from their teacher’s inspired descriptions. If they have not earned their high school diplomas, they go to class three hours a day. A teenager who murdered his teacher has become a model student. Felons wear gaps and gowns. Some weep at graduation.

I think, Yes, there is hope for Flint here. There is the possibility that he will survive long enough to find solace for himself and begin to feel tenderness and sorrow for his victims. This is what we all need: long days of mercy in our own lives, hope, and freedom from pain, so that we have space in our hearts and minds to imagine another person’s anguish.

But Flint’s redemption and my own escape will not be this easy. Linda Moodry, my guide for the day, tells me that during the 1991 riot in Maximum Security, five Protective Custody inmates were murdered by other prisoners.

Norman Maclean is so close I hear him whisper: “If the storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew.”

I have copied these words at least a dozen times in my own hand. They are my prayer. They give me courage when I feel my own strength leave me. I consider the young men who risked their lives to fight a fire, and I envision the old man who climbed, weak and parched, risking his own life to tell their story. And though fidelity to the people of our fictions may seem less sacred than devotion to the quick and the dead, I believe every storyteller bears the same burden of responsibility. We make a covenant with the people we invent to serve and love them as honestly as possible, to bear witness to their lives without sentimentality or prejudice.

September 22, 1991, just one year after the boy I had come to know as Flint Zimmer entered Montana State Prison, the inmates held in Maximum Security broke through the cyclone fencing with their bare hands, shattered the plate glass glazing of the officers’ cage, set mattresses and trash and clothes on fire to melt a hole in the Lexan shield, and gained access to every cell in the unit.

Four hours later, the Prison’s Disturbance Control Team entered a maze of fire and fumes they described as hell. They meant it literally. Sprinklers worked, but the smoke evacuation system didn’t. Electrical wiring fell into standing water. Any misstep here might mean death by electrocution. One Protective Custody inmate, anticipating the riot, had mixed a bucket of blood-red paint to splatter himself. While fellow prisoners beat him with their fists and prodded him with a broken mop handle, he held his breath and lay motionless. He was one of the lucky ones. In five other cells, the blood on the walls and floors and ceilings was real.

Norman Maclean is not my only teacher. Kate Braverman says that a writer needs the stamina of a channel swimmer and the faith of a fanatic. Mikal Gilmore must have thought he’d reached the limits of both during the years he explored Shot in the Heart and chose to expose himself to the ghosts and demons that had destroyed his parents and three older brothers. Long before I was fortunate enough to know Andre Dubus and learn from him as a person, his stories reminded me that everyone has his grief: the murderer knows despair; the rapist has been wounded. Goethe said, “There is no crime of which I cannot conceive myself guilty.” In Frank Bidart’s poem, “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” the dancer confesses: “I know people’s faults / because in my soul, / I HAVE COMMITTED THEM.” I believe Andre Dubus was a man who understood this kind of intimate turmoil, the fear that his own impulses made him both vulnerable and dangerous, the conviction that a man who witnesses an act of violence and does nothing is as much to blame as the one who commits it. Yet even he recalled a time when empathy eluded him.

Decades before Andre Dubus lost the use of his legs, he pushed a friend in a wheelchair to the crest of a hill. The man was agile and strong despite his paralysis. Later, when Andre thought of people in chairs, he conjured men like his friend: “Stouthearted folk wheeling fast on sidewalks, climbing curbs, and of course sometimes falling backward.”

He didn’t fully understand what that meant until a day over 20 years later when he fell backward in his own wheelchair, and his head slammed the floor, and he lay hurt and helpless. In “Song of Pity,” he says: “I lacked the compassion and courage to imagine someone else’s suffering.” He never dared to think of his friend “making his bed, sitting on a toilet, sitting in a shower, dressing himself, preparing breakfast.”

Sometimes the smallest details of another person’s daily struggle threaten to destroy us. We avert our gaze because sympathy forces us to recognize the fragility of our human bodies and our human spirits.

When I learned of the riot, Norman Maclean’s prayer to follow my people into smoke and fire became an exhortation. On my way to Deer Lodge, I thought I faced four weeks of revision. Returning to Kalispell, I realized I stood on the brink of six more months of immersion.

It was, I suppose, unnecessary work. Flint did not live in Maximum Security. He was not among the dead; he was not a killer. But I believed I could not know this boy, I could not love him fully, unless I too confronted the terror he must have felt when he learned what had happened. I needed to see the naked, barefoot prisoners beaten by guards as they ran a gauntlet of broken glass. I needed to learn how they lay facedown in No Man’s Land for seven hours. Fierce with panic and perilously outnumbered, the guards could not determine who might be a victim and who a perpetrator. The sun blazed that day, and the night was cold, and still the prisoners lay, burned raw, but freezing.

In the novel, my description of the riot spans less than three pages, but should I meet Norman Maclean walking in the woods today, I will be able to answer him if he asks the most important question: How did it happen?

Andre Dubus once told me he prayed for me every day, and that when he did, an angel came and sat on my shoulder. The day he died, I was afraid of what might happen to me, how I would live without his faith and his protection. But Andre had more faith than even he fathomed. When he comes to me now, I am pushing his chair up a long hill on a cold, bright day in early winter. We will never reach the top. He speaks into the wind as we go — my friend, my fiery angel. If I try to go too fast, if he senses my impatience, he laughs. Look at me, he says. I am your proof: there is no swift or easy way to gain the courage for compassion.

This essay first appeared in Fugue no. 21, summer 2001: 10–15.

Melanie Rae Thon is the author of Silence & Song (2015) and The Voice of the River (2011) from FC2.