Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan

On July 6, 1944, nine thousand people, mostly women and children, attended the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut.  It was the matinee show and started at around 2:00 p.m.  Moments later, the circus tent caught fire and in minutes was completely consumed.  Pandemonium reigned as petrified patrons fought and clawed to escape the inferno.  One hundred and sixty-seven people died that day.

Stewart O'Nan has painstakingly recreated this horrific event.  He covers the individual stories of various victims and survivors.  The history of the circus is covered, along with the war factory environment of Hartford in 1944.  Possible causes of the fire are considered.  Was it an act of arson?  Or was the fact that the tent was waterproofed with a mixture of gasoline and paraffin the main culprit?  The survivors are followed through their months of hospitalization and the various legal issues and court cases are covered.  The lives of various circus performers are told, as well as the stories of the men who investigated the fire and its causes for years.  The later lives of those involved are covered, especially the struggle to identify one little girl that stretched for decades.

Although a horrific event, the painstaking research O'Nan has performed makes this a fascinating subject.  The changes that took place due to the fire and the general change in the country as it moved to new entertainment venues such as television made the circus under the big tent a thing of the past.  O'Nan takes the reader inside the tent and shows them a world that no longer exists.  This book is recommended for readers of nonfiction and circus fans, as well as those who enjoy tales of heroism.


Melissa said...

I haven't read anything by Stewart O'Nan in years, but this book looks intriguing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.