Friday, October 28, 2011

The Circus Fire: A True Story by Stewart O'Nan

Our book group was unanimous. None us liked the idea of paraffin and gasoline as a coating on the bigtop. In this era, what Stewart O'Nan told us about the fire that burned down the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut on July 6, 1944 seems very hard to believe. We are now so much more safety conscious and have so many rules and regulations. 167 people died in a tragic fire that need never have occurred. What were the circus owners and managers thinking? Did they even care?

We were not so unanimous in accessing O'Nan's book The Circus Fire: A True Story. Many thought it was not an engaging book. The narrative is strictly and unbendingly chronological, and each paragraph may take the reader to a different scene. There are also so many names to learn. On page 24, O'Nan provided a list of some of those names, but he does not warn the reader to take notes. He did not include an index, which might help readers double check who did what. Instead, O'Nan wrote a journalistic, comprehensive book, the book he would have liked to have found when he had his first questions about the fire. Members of the book group would have preferred a better flowing narrative with few characters. We liked the large collection of photos.

The flaws in the book (real or perceived) make it a better title for a book discussion. Nothing draws people out more than having something about which to differ. Also, reading The Circus Fire will make you check for exits next time you go in a theater or stadium. It is worth reading just for that.

O'Nan, Stewart. The Circus Fire: A True Story. Doubleday, 2000. ISBN 0385496842.

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