Monday, January 23, 2012

The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan

4. The Circus Fire
by Stewart O'Nan
nonfiction, 2000
library book
first book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge 2012
finished, 1/19/12

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 [167], 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.


  1. Nice review, Nan.

    In case you aren't familiar with Mark Erelli's song covering the same subject matter, I thought you might like to hear it:

    "Hartfordtown 1944"

  2. I've never heard it, Sprite. Thank you. I'll go listen now.

  3. This sounds a compelling read, I must look for it on Amazon.

  4. It is there, Rowan. That's where I bought the paperback version for Tom's mother. Different cover. I think the HC picture is better because it is a real photo taken that day. It is a book I'll not forget.

  5. Hard to believe there was no definitive nonfiction work about the fire. This sounds like a fascinating book and I love Stewart O'Nan's writing... on to the list it goes. Thanks for the review, Nan.

  6. JoAnn, we sure share an admiration for his work, don't we?! This is a wonderfully written account.

  7. This is an author that I hope to read this year. Putting this one on my list. Very, very scary.

  8. It is scary and so sad, Kay, and there's still mystery surrounding it. The book goes into the 1990s.

  9. Terrific review, Nan. This sounds fascinating. I'd only vaguely ever heard of this fire, probably years ago. I'm adding the title to my incorrigible TBR list. :)

  10. Yvette, it is so very good that you might want to read it sooner than later!

  11. I loved her review of this one too and now reading how much you enjoyed it has me moving it up big time on my list of books to read this year!

  12. It's a very special book, Staci.

  13. Fantastic review, Nan. I just added it to my list.

  14. Thanks, Jen. I think you'll find it most readable, albeit sad.

  15. He's such a talented fiction writer and as I have told you I really appreciated your turning me on to him -- eager to read this non-fiction by him -- a sad event I had heard nothing of -- another addition to my TBR list.

  16. Thank you for this very interesting review, Nan! I had never heard of this disaster until now.

  17. Sallie and Librarian, the fact you had never heard of this fire shows me what an important contribution Stewart O'Nan has made in writing the book.

  18. Nan, thank you for such a compelling and well-written review. I wasn't familiar with this tragedy until now with this post and it looks like something I might want to read.

    I'm not sure if your non-fiction reading plans are well set, but, you might be interested in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I'm just about done for our book discussion on Thursday and have had a hard time putting it down.


  19. Penny, thanks for the recommendation. I'll look into it. I'm glad you were able to comment.

    If anyone has been having trouble leaving comments, I've just disabled the word verification.

  20. I've ordered it through interlibrary loan. Thank you so much for introducing me to Stewart O'Nan! What a writer!

  21. Lgraves, I hope to read a lot more by him this year. I'll be interested to see how you like this.

  22. I got a little bogged down trying to keep track of all the people in The Circus Fire and so the writing didn't impact me as much as it has with other readers, it seems. (My reaction to the book being of course separate from my reaction to the tragedy itself, which is horror.) But I read it years ago and I still remember that fact of them coating the tent with paraffin.And I think it is such a wonderful memorial and chronicle that O'Nan gave the people of Hartford. That is an amazing personal anecdote as well about the knives, Nan.

  23. Christy, yeah, I think a list of all the people, in addition to the small list he had, would have been helpful. Perhaps this list could have noted who died as well. An index would have been good. The website about the fire

    does list all those people. So, so sad.


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