cover image The Circus Fire

The Circus Fire

Stewart O'Nan / Author Doubleday Books $24.95 (384p) ISBN 978-

On July 6, 1944, the big top of the Ringling Bros. circus caught fire during an afternoon performance in Hartford, Conn., and quickly burned to the ground. One hundred and sixty-seven people were killedDmost of them women and childrenDand hundreds more wounded. When acclaimed novelist O'Nan (A Prayer for the Dying, etc.) moved to Hartford 50 years later, he discovered that the town was still haunted by the tragedy. His history of the event is lyrical, gruesome and heartbreaking. At the heart of the narrative is O'Nan's harrowing, minute-by-minute account of the actual burning, during which nearly 9,000 people scrambled to escape through just seven exits. One boy saved himself (and hundreds of others) by cutting a hole in the tent wall with his fishing knife. Another man literally threw children to safety before losing his footing and perishing in the blaze. Above them, the tent canvas, which had been waterproofed with gasoline andn paraffin, ""rained down like napalm"" on the necks and shoulders of the fleeing crowd. By the end, O'Nan reports, the heat was so intense that people died not from smoke inhalation, as in most fires, but by being cooked alive. O'Nan goes on to describe the bleak days after the disaster, when local families set about the morbid task of identifying loved ones, often possible only by using dental records. He also chronicles the four decades of detective work that led to the identification (in error, O'Nan believes) of a little girl whose body originally went unclaimed. This moving elegy does tribute both to the terrible tragedy and to O'Nan's talent as a writer. B&w photos. (June)