cover image The House is on Fire

The House is on Fire

Rachel Beanland. Simon & Schuster, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-982186-14-2

Beanland’s powerful second novel (after Florence Adler Swims Forever) follows four characters through a disastrous fire and its aftermath. In December 1811, 600 people are crowded into Virginia’s Richmond Theater for a performance when teenage stagehand Jack Gibson forgets to snuff the candles on the stage chandelier but obeys an order to raise it into the rafters, where it ignites a backdrop and then the building. Sally Henry Campbell, a genteel widow attending the play, and Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith who runs to the scene to help, are among those who try to rescue theatergoers trapped by the enormous blaze. Despite such efforts, scores perish or are grotesquely injured. Gilbert’s niece Cecily Patterson makes it safely out of a section called the “colored people’s gallery,” then attempts to free herself from slavery amid the ensuing chaos. Gilbert tries to help Cecily and Campbell volunteers at a makeshift hospital, while Gibson watches helplessly as his troupe, attempting to evade criminal charges, falsely blames the conflagration on a slave rebellion. Beanland enlivens the smart and suspenseful narrative with fully developed protagonists that illuminate the community’s response to mass catastrophe. Readers will relish this. Agent: Chad Luibl, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Apr.)