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The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

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3.92 of 5 stars 3.92  ·  rating details  ·  1,393 ratings  ·  171 reviews
The acclaimed author of A Prayer for the Dying brings all his narrative gifts to bear on this gripping account of tragedy and heroism-the great Hartford circus fire of 1944.

Halfway through a midsummer afternoon performance, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus's big top caught fire. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline; in seconds it
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Paperback, 384 pages
Published June 12th 2001 by Anchor (first published June 20th 2000)
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Non-fiction Disaster Books
9th out of 96 books — 132 voters
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Tamora Pierce
This is the absolutely harrowing story of a major American fire, one that took place in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944, in the big top of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. 8,000 people were trapped inside; 167 people died of burns, and many, many more suffered scarring and injuries, physical and psychological. It was the beginning of the end of the tent circus, which was finished off by the arrival of television.

Author O'Nan conducts an exhaustive investigation into the lives of th
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Chrissie
I have listened to almost four hours (total 11 hours 17 minutes) of Dick Hill's narration of this audiobook. It is unbelievably gruesome. Four hours focused upon the description of maimed, burned and dead bodies, human bodies. Not one circus animal was killed. Now I have had it. That's enough. It is more than I can bear.

The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy is written and narrated to shock. Others warn in their reviews that it is gruesome, but there ought to be another word to ad
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Heather
Growing up in Connecticut I have been interested in the Hartford Circus Fire since I first found out about it. It was surprising to be that at the time I had first learned of this disaster there were no books published that were just about this incident. Stewart O’Nan, a well known novelist, took on the grueling task of writing this non-fiction account of the historic circus disaster and hit it out of the park!

The first thing that really catches the eye of the reader in this book is the forward
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Matt
On July 6, 1944 - one month after the Allies landed in Normandy - some 9,000 people turned out to watch the Flying Wallendas in the Big Top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Big Top had been waterproofed with 24,000 gallons of white gasoline and paraffin. Somehow, a fire started, and the potently flammable tent went up like a Roman candle. There was a rush to escape. Merle Evans, the band leader, like some latter day Wallace Hartley on the Titanic, cued Stars and Strip ...more
Chaybyrd
Bottom Line: A grueling bore about a tragic event.
The biggest flaw with O'Nan's telling of the Hartford circus fire is how he tells the story. As other reviewer's have stated the book is super choppy - to such an extent that it becomes unreadable. He jumps from event to event in such a way that it's impossible to follow the survivor's incredible stories. Terms and events are left unexplained and characters are thrown in without creating the proper context.

The silver lining: I hear O'Nan is a go
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Mari Anne
This true life event was amazing and horrific but unfortunately the author's retelling of events is much less interesting. O'Nan account is choppy and jumps around in time and place to the point of making the reader feel dizzy. He has packed his narrative with so many names and references that it's impossible to keep track of anyone and therefore the reader isn't able to relate to any of them.

I ended up skimming most of this book. I wouldn't recommend to anyone but hardcore disaster book or circ
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Sarah
For some reason I'm fascinated by old circuses; I think a combination of my fascination with freaks and transients/my undying love for tatty retro glamour of all kinds/too many episodes of Circus of the Stars watched as a kid. I found the book's ridiculously macabre subject matter totally compelling and couldn't-put-it-down-even-though-I-probably-should-because-I-might-have-nightmares-because-I'm-a-wimp readable. I'm a fan of Stewart O'Nan's fiction, and was a little surprised by how totally str ...more
Susan
My friend who owns my favorite bookshop kept telling me about this book. I wasn't all that interested. Then last Saturday, he put a copy in my hands and ordered me to read it so I did. On July 6, 1944, several thousand people attended the afternoon show of the Ringling Bros. And Barnum and Baily Circus under the big tent. Just as the show started, the tent caught on fire. The result was death and mayhem. This books chronicles the people involved. Those with the circus and those who were injured ...more
Kitty
I originally read this book as part of a book club that I never showed up for. It took me forever to read this book due to a class and other distractions, last winter. However, it heald my attention. It is a difficult subject matter. It was one of the worst domestic losses of life in the history of nation. The horrible thing was the amount of children that died. I actually know a woman, who is a former Lt. Gov. of our fair state, who was a six year old girl and survived this fire. A young circus ...more
Eric_W
Although the circus industry had not been immune to fires — one in Cleveland had killed several animals — the largest of the shows, P. T. Barnum, could brag that no one had lost a life because of a fire. There had been several close calls, however. Another fire had burned the big top, the canvas catching fire from sparks of a fire down the road. The canvas was covered with a mixture of 6,000 gallons of white gasoline and 18,000 pounds of paraffin to make it waterproof. Unfortunately, that also m ...more
Traci
First off, I started reading this book and I didn't have a real reason why. I love the circus, but I knew exactly what I was getting into here: a really depressing nonfiction with a lot of unsolved history and more questions than answers. As I was finishing it today, I happened to read the date of the fire for the ten millionth time... and realized that the anniversary of that fire is today. Just a creepy little bit of synchronicity to bring everything around full circle.

Anyway, this book was de
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Jeanette
This is a telling in minutia of the Hartford 1944 Circus disaster. It's pure non-fiction, with no connective relief for the 8000 or 9000 stories of the individuals that experienced this horrific day. For the 167 fatalities there are gruesome and beyond tragic renderings. It's instructive for the reality of results for flashing high heat for human bodies and stadium structures. So many tragedies have occurred with vast death in crowds but few have had such impact for non-recognition of human rema ...more
Pam
Okay, maybe it's morbid, but I love reading about disasters -- fires, floods, earthquakes, plagues, etc. This book has gory detail but O'Nan doesn't wallow in it -- he doesn't sensationalize. There's a lot of interesting information about the circus itself, how it travels, how things work, and also some interesting stuff about how people behave in a crisis, how we can be tripped up by habit and expectation. Example: People tried to get out of the tent the same way they went in, even though other ...more
Florence
I used to be a dedicated circus fan going to see performances of The Greatest Show on Earth as well as following "mud shows" under canvas. Gradually I began to realize that the life of a circus animal is dismal. Being confined to a cage for its whole life is certainly cruel to any animal, especially a wild one. This book starts off describing a circus menagerie fire in the 1940s in Cleveland. The details of death and suffering are too horrible to think about.

The narrative of the famous Hartfor
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Barb
This is a really horrific story with details that the faint of heart won't want to read about but O'Nan does a terrible job of weaving together the many different stories of survivors and those who worked to sort out the chaos after the fire.

His style of writing is awkward unnatural and clumsy. He adds confusing tid-bits related to the story that seem to have no purpose but to further confuse the reader. There were a lot of people to keep track of and I found it difficult to do.

I almost felt lik
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Graceann
Waterproofing with paraffin and gasoline - what could go wrong? When Stewart O'Nan moved to the Hartford area, he heard about a devastating fire that had taken place in July 1944. It had killed 167 people; most of them women and children. He went to the library to get a book on the disaster, only to find that none had been written yet. He started collecting materials, with the object in mind of passing them along to a non-fiction writer, given that he had always written fiction and had no intent ...more
Bob Redmond
If you want to know everything there is to know about the Hartford (CT) circus fire from 1944, read this book. It will numb your brain with all of the detail. There are no jokes, not that there should be--the tragedy took 167 lives and helped bring an end to the outdoor big tent circus, at least until Cirque du Soliel helped revive the tent spectacle in the late 20th century.

But O'Nan mentions cultural implications only in passing; his sole focus is total documentation of the fire and its specif
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Booklunatic
4 Sterne

Grausam, aber packend. Warum liest man sowas nun? Ich habe halt ein Faible für Zirkus und für wahre Begebenheiten, auch dramatische. O'Nan hat gut recherchiert. Obwohl er recht nüchtern berichtet -oder vielleicht auch grade deswegen - , nimmt einen das Geschehen ungeheuer mit. Besonders das Schicksal von "Miss 1565" hat mich sehr berührt. An sie werde ich noch lange denken... Oh, und ich bin gottfroh, dass heute bei Großveranstaltungen bessere Brandschutzvorkehrungen getroffen werden.
Gerri Leen
This was hard going and not because of the material--the details of the fire itself were mesmerizing and chilling; unfortunately, they didn't take up that much of the book. I expected to be more engaged: my uncle was a clown and while he was never in the circus, he had friends who were, so I was in the audience when they were in town. They weren't in the big top, but still I have fond memories of the circus (if not clowns--yes, they scare me). I think in some ways this book suffered by trying to ...more
Edward Lengel
At first glance, this is a decent if not overly impressive entry in the disaster genre. O'Nan's prose is surprisingly a little pedestrian considering that he's a novelist, and he has a little trouble juggling the characters in such a way that the reader can keep track of them. But it is a powerful story, told in unsparing detail.

Alas, there is a much bigger problem. O'Nan subtitles his book "A True Story," and he makes a number of contentious assertions about the origins of the fire, the identit
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Marsha
This book is about a July 1944 fire under the big tent in Hartford, Connecticut, which resulted in the death and injuries of hundreds of people. Due to panic, people were trampled to death by other patrons running out of the tent to escape the fire. Others sustained horrible injuries from burns, and many died from the fire or from their injuries. The cause of the fire was never disclosed, but theories have it that it was started, most likely from a lit cigarette or match in the
men’s room. Despit
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Michael
This is a great book. Very tragic. I wanted to give it 4 and half stars. Sometimes tragedies are waiting to happen. This was a matter of many elements combining to create a hazard. It took one spark to set of a disastrous chain of events. Most likely the flick of a cigarette or match cost many their lives. This book is very well written and sticks to the story. I love a book that reads so well, so smoothly that you almost feel like you're watching it instead of reading it. This book accomplishes ...more
Kevin A.
This book is O'Nan's account of the tragic fire that took down Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey's big top in Hartford in 1944, leaving 167 dead.

The author is a novelist, not a historian, so it's odd that while his research seems rock solid, the weak spot of the book is the storytelling. By sticking to a strict chronological format, he compromises the power of the individual stories of the survivors and the dead. This reader, anyway, was left unable to keep the stories of each family str
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Katherine
This book recounts the events leading up to, during, and after the horrible fire at the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus on July 6th, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut. Honestly, I struggled to get through this. In the forward, the author, Stewart O'Nan, tells us that he decided to tell this true story in an unconventional way: in a novel. But this did not fee like a novel at all! It was dense, filled with too many characters to keep track of. It was often dull, despite the dramatic event ...more
Jenny
Mar 19, 2008 Jenny rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: historians
Shelves: nonfiction, audio
I thought this would be right up my alley, but it was suuuuuuuuuuper dry. I mean, who mentions that Charles Nelson Reilly was present at the historical event you wrote a whole book on, and doesn't dwell on that for more than a sentence. It's not really much for a casual reader.
Lynne
Some may not like how detail oriented this is - which put me off at first - but as I got into it and after the fire occurred in the book, I found it to be interesting and thorough.
Leanna
I have lived in Connecticut for 42 years (so far) but only had a very basic knowledge of the Circus Fire, other than having had one friend who had been there, indirectly knew someone who lost a child there, and have a friend who wrote a book about it. (I guess I was incurious).
O'Nan's book has brought it to the front of my mind. I was unable to put it down; I completed it in a couple or three days. He handles a mass of material amazingly well and writes it in a day-by-day presentation (and almo
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Nancy L.
O'Nan does a masterful job with a difficult and heart-breaking story. If you want to know more about the Hartford Circus Fire, this is the seminal book to read.
Kelly Deriemaeker
Indrukwekkend hoe de schrijver dit wrede verhaal heeft kunnen reconstrueren. Bepaalde omschrijvingen ga ik echt van mijn leven niet meer vergeten, vrees ik.
Erin
There was obviously a good deal of research that went into this book, and there were quite a few black and white photos spread throughout, but I found that the organization of the book hindered rather than helped the flow of the story. Also, the photos were sometimes disconnected from the nearby text - one referenced a person that hadn't been introduced yet, and another picture was included a good 100 or more pages prior to when a section of the book actually focused on that image.

Also, the desc
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Stewart O'Nan is the author of eleven novels, including Snow Angels and A Prayer for the Dying, a story collection, and two works of nonfiction. His previous novel, Last Night at the Lobster, was a national bestseller, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was named one of the New York Public Library Books to Remember. Additionally, Granta named him one of the 20 Best Young Ameri ...more
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“To be lost and forgotten-to be abandoned-is a shared and terrible fear, just as our fondest hope, as we grow older, is that we might leave some parts of us behind in the hearts of those we love and in that way live on.” 10 likes
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