Stewart O'Nan is amazing in his handling of the abundance of facts, rumors and legends that have built up around this fire in the years since it occurred. The author of several fine novels...this is his first work of non-fiction he shows here a journalist's restraint, using poetic description at only choice moments.
You can't ask for a more dramatic story, and Stewart O'Nan captures it all in an extraodinary book, Circus Fire
To quote KLIATT's Nov. 2000 review of the Brilliance audiobook edition: For stark human drama, this excellent, emotionally draining, vivid yet sensitive account of one of the most catastrophic accidents in American circus history... will be hard to beat. A fire of undetermined origin broke out in the Big Top of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus during the July 6, 1944 matinee in Hartford, CT. The fire and the ensuing panic resulted in the deaths of 167 people and left many questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. The author begins by discussing previous circus fires and then sets the scene for the Hartford disaster...This story will send circus buffs and students of the human tragedy genre to the Internet and/or the library to find out more about this catastrophe. Excellent, but not for the overly sensitive. KLIATT Codes: SARecommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, Anchor, 370p. illus., $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Prof. John E. Boyd; Jenkintown, PA , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
In 1944, in Hartford, CT, the big top of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus caught fire and burned to the ground in minutes. A capacity crowd of 10,000 was inside; many never got out. O'Nan takes us meticulously from the few stops before the setting up of the tent at the fatal site to the activities of some of the players into the 1990s. We encounter dozens of characters: people who almost went to the circus that day, families who did, along with the officials, investigators, and suspects. The cause of the inferno was never explained satisfactorily, but most observers eventually concluded that it was arson, and one unbalanced suspect seems the most likely candidate. The author devotes many words to horrible descriptions of injuries suffered--this is not a work for the squeamish. Interplay among the officials of the Ringling family is depicted, along with the political reaction to the disaster. Dick Hill's basic American intonations fit right in with this story; his approach is fairly emotionless here, and it works because the subject matter is so ghastly. A good selection for nonfiction collections.--Don Wismer, Cary Memorial Lib., Wayne, ME Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
With thrilling precision, O'Nan deftly describes the events leasing up to and during the fire...Accompanying O'Nan's superb writing are archival photographs, which add a visceral impact to the story.
Time Out New York
[O'Nan's] lavish documentation (which so often reads as if he
were a newspaperman on the scene, phoning in as many facts and
impressions as possible) suggests a larger theme. Perhaps the
circumscribed horror of a circus fire -- of fun gone wrong -- will typify not
the old century but the new one, in which we may suffer a pox of isolated
catastrophes rather than a few gigantic worldwide conflagrations. In
capturing them, a writer of manifold talents like Stewart O'Nan ought to
The New York Times Book Review
Agonizing hour-by-hour retelling of the worst American circus disaster and its aftermath, seen with a restless, unflinching eye for the detailstouching, ironic, and depraved. "The fire was the size of a baseball, a football, a basketball, a dishpan, a briefcase, a small window, half a tablecloth. . . . One thing people agreed on was that it was small." How the blaze started on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, remains unknown. At least 167 people died, and several thousand were injured. The resulting bad publicity (and nearly $5 million in civil judgments) not only pushed Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey's into receivership, it eventually forced the Greatest Show on Earth to discard its sideshow and abandon the outdoor "big top" for the gloomy (but fireproof) confines of concrete sports arenas. For novelist O'Nan (A Prayer for the Dying, 1999, etc.), the event is a small-town tragedy that grew quickly into a national scandal: the show business equivalent of the sinking of the Titanic, inspiring works of fact and fiction and setting off a nationwide hunt for a crazed arsonist, 25 years of courtroom battles, thousands of dollars in donated funds for survivors, and mountains of sensationalist journalism. O'Nan finds epic pathos in the heroics of common individuals and circus performers (clown Emmet Kelly and the Flying Wallendas among them), the bellowing of doomed animals, the panic of the mob, the shameless buck-passing of local officials, and the disgraceful efforts of circus staff to avoid responsibility. Fortunately, co-owner Robert Ringling's fatuous claim that his paraffin-coated tent could not be fireproofed during wartimewithoutmilitary approval did not sway a Connecticut judge from fining the circus $10,000 and convicting (and imprisoning) five circus staffers for involuntary manslaughter. O'Nan alleviates his gripping, tragic story with wry glances at circus history and its better-known personalities and performers, as well as interviews with numerous survivors whose lives the fire changed (not always for the worst). (96 photos and illustrations)