Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan, read by Dick Hill

I had never heard of the big circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944, but once I heard about this book, I was intrigued. In particular, I had heard the audio book was good which is what I decided to try, and boy am I glad I did! This was a fantastic audio, and I would sometimes find myself looking forward to even a short car trip or walk, because I could listen to just a little more!

The author moved to Hartford and heard about the fire, and wanted to find out more. But his local library had nothing. Neither did the entire library system. In fact he couldn't find any book that told the story of the fire at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus on July 6, 1944. He didn't set out to write a book - he only wanted to understand his newly adopted city better (and besides, Stewart O'Nan is a fiction writer - he REALLY didn't think he was going to write this book.) But as he researched the tragedy, a story came to life, and he felt fictionalizing it would be disrespectful. I think Mr. O'Nan should write nonfiction more often.

At the beginning, he tells the story of a fire in Cleveland, Ohio just a few years earlier in the menagerie where many animals were burned and died, and I was almost sick with the vivid, grotesque details. At least the people had a fighting chance, but the big cats in cages had no way out, nothing they could do but lay down and die. It broke my heart.

But that fire did not compare to the one in Hartford that took 167 lives, injuring 487, mostly women and children. Mr. O'Nan tells the story of dozens of families who went to the circus that day jubilant, some celebrating birthdays, others just thrilled to have an escape from the daily reminders of war and hardships that was life in 1944. Luckily when the fire broke out, the cats act was just exiting the big top,and the Flying Wallendas were just starting their show, so there were not animals in danger, nor were there a large number of circus employees in harm's way (no circus employees were killed), but unluckily, not everyone was able to get out. Some panicked. Some were trampled. Some were pregnant or otherwise impaired. But amidst the heart-wrenching horror, there were stories of luck and heroism. Children were dropped down from the top of the bleachers to outside and strange men caught them. Strangers helped strangers that day. People gave children rides to distant towns. People opened their homes and gave out water and first aid. Even local businesses, trained what to do in case of Axis bombing, rushed into action with department store delivery trucks outfitted for ambulances. Hundreds of volunteered manned switchboards, hospitals, and the makeshift morgue.

Mr. O'Nan truly did a great deal of research. At the end, he tried valiantly to piece together answers to questions that remain to this day: who started the fire? Was it deliberate? Who were the identities of the six unclaimed bodies? But the stories of the people involved were ultimately more compelling than the longstanding questions. I couldn't stop listening. The narrator had just the right amount of gravitas without sounding ponderous. This book is not for the faint-of-heart, and even the most stalwart will at times have their heart broken, but it was a fascinating, gripping read, and I'd venture to say it's a must read for anyone living in or from Hartford.

Mr. O'Nan did mention photos taken many times in the narrative. I am not sure if the print book had a photo section but if it does, this is another example of a publisher not doing right by the audio listeners.

I bought this book from Audible.


Teresa said...

This sounds fascinating. I have a rather morbid fascination with tragedies like this, and I'm always pleased to read a well-written, well-researched book about one.

Jen said...

Not to sound weird, but I've read this book several times. I have a bit of a fascination with circuses, and I thought the author did such a great job with this story ---

maybe I'll look for it on audio now. :)

Kristen said...

I have never heard of this book but it sounds facinating. I am probably going to look for the print version of this book ... especially if there are pictures included.

Christy said...

I didn't like this book as much as you, but I still remember the fact that they waterproofed the circus tents with paraffin. Paraffin!

Stewart O'Nan will always have my affection for writing A Prayer for the Dying, but I haven't read another book of his that I've liked so well as that one.