4. The Circus Fire
by Stewart O'Nan
first book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge 2012
I first heard of this book at Lynne's Book Reviews, and knew I wanted to read it for a couple reasons. One is because I was so impressed by the author's writing in Emily, Alone that I want to read everything he has written. And two is because of a jackknife.
The Circus Fire is out of his usual realm of fiction. It is a record of a fire at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944. Stewart O'Nan explains in the foreword why he wrote it. When he moved to Hartford and went to the library looking for a 'good history' of the fire
They didn't have one.
Maybe another library around town?
No, what they meant was, there wasn't one.
I thought that was wrong. The circus fire was the biggest disaster in the history of the state, and such a strange one. So many people had died , I couldn't believe no one had commemorated the event, set it in words for later generations. ... I started asking people around town what they knew about it.
Everyone had a friend or neighbor who had been there that day, a grandmother or a cousin. Everyone had a story. People of that generation knew exactly where they were that afternoon, just as, later, they could recall what they were doing when President Kennedy was shot. The fire had that great of an impact on the city.
There is no one better to tell the story of the circus fire than Stewart O'Nan. The compassionate empathy toward people which was so evident in Emily, Alone comes through again in his telling of this sad, sad tale. When he describes a scene and we wince, we know that he is wincing as well.
Years ago Tom's mother gave me a jackknife to keep in my purse. She was continuing a tradition begun because of this very fire. She was sixteen and her sister fourteen when the circus fire happened. They lived in Connecticut. Her mother gave both girls a knife so that if they were ever in a burning circus tent, they could cut their way out. We gave her The Circus Fire for her anniversary this year.
Thirteen-year-old Donald Anderson … had a fishing knife with him, with a good sharp blade. … He stuck the knife into the middle of the wall and worked it down, sawing the tough canvas until he had a fair-sized slit. Left and right at the bottom, left and right at the top, and it was a door big enough for him to get out.
All around the tent, fathers slashed at the canvas with penknives, boys wearing HiJacks paratrooper boots whipped miniature jackknifes out of their scabbards, and people dashed out into the cool air.
While the rest of the world forgets, the circus fire remains the property of the survivors. To this day, Timothy Burns of South Windsor carries a small pocket knife. At his father's wake, he slipped his dad's knife into his jacket pocket, as if he might use it in another life.
The book is filled with sometimes unbearable tension, as we read of little events and words that are so meaningful in hindsight. A man lounging around the morning of the circus 'precariously on the porch rail' is scolded by his mother
"You don't get off of that thing, I'll send you home in a coffin."Two families planned to go to the circus together, but one girl had a summer cold and her mother stayed home to take care of her.
One girl woke up the night before the circus
and saw a man standing on the steps to their parents' room. The man looked at her and said, "Don't be afraid," then disappeared. When she described the man, her father knew who it was - his father, long dead.A wife and mother was afraid of heights, and when she found the family circus seats were way up high,
the usher managed to squeeze her into the front row of the section, down on the ground, right by the railing.
Stewart O'Nan tells us many such stories of people and families. We get to know them a bit, feeling a sense of dread in the knowledge that some will die in this fire - on what was to be a happy, carefree day. We read of heroic deeds, and not-so-heroic actions. We read in amazement that there was no fire-retardant on the tent roof, and in fact it was treated with a combination of paraffin and gasoline to make it impermeable to rain. There are documents and photographs, and accounts given by people involved, circus goers, policemen, firemen, and political figures, as well as the circus people and owners.
When asked why he didn't 'just write a novel' about the fire, the author said that he felt
it deserved only the most stringent, very best intentions of nonfiction, the idea being to tell the truth about an event that changed the lives of tens of thousands of people. I suppose I thought I might cheapen the fire by fictionalizing it.
As I dug deeper into the research, I discovered my choice of nonfiction was right for a simpler reason: the fact that truth really is stranger than fiction. Not merely weirder, but packed with coincidences, gaps and lapses that well-made fiction can't tolerate.
The story of the circus fire couldn't possibly have been more gripping, and if it had been fiction, the reader would indeed have said, 'oh, right, that couldn't happen.' What did happen on July 6, 1944, and the events which occurred before it and for many years afterward make for an excellent book. Not an easy book, but still I read on as Stewart O'Nan transported me to a time and place so long ago. It is a masterpiece of nonfiction writing.
There is a blurb on the back of the book by Rick Bragg, my own personal favorite nonfiction writer. He says
The Circus Fire is terrifying, compelling, and absolutely readable - because it is real. It happened in 1944, but Stewart O'Nan brings it to life again, along with its heroes and villains, and makes you feel like you're inside the big top as it starts to burn.There is a website devoted to the fire here.
Addendum: I am grateful to my blogging friend Sprite for directing me to a song by Mark Erelli about this fire.
This is my first book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge 2012.