Erin Ramai's Reviews > The Great Fire

The Great Fire by Jim Murphy
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The Great Fire by Jim Murphy is appropriate for children in grades 5-9. It received a Newbery Honor Award in 1996. I listened to the Playaway audio version of this text.

The true story of the Chicago Fire of 1871 is a series of mistakes, almost to the point of being a comedy of errors. However, the destruction and the devastation were very real. The city was made almost entirely of wood and because there had been a drought and a fierce wind blowing, the fire was nearly impossible to contain. People were not as afraid as they should have been because so many fires happened within a short period of time that they grew accustomed to hearing alarm bells and did not react accordingly. Engines were sent to the wrong locations and old equipment, which malfunctioned, was used to battle the blaze. They surrounded the fire with engines to keep it from spreading, but once it broke beyond those barriers, the fire was seemingly unstoppable. In order to stop the fire, they tried to deprive it of fuel by blowing up houses in the immediate vicinity and chopping up fences and sidewalks. Neither was very effective. Read to find out the extent of Chicago’s damage, what happened in the aftermath, and how a wrongfully accused cow became the scapegoat for The Great Fire.

In this information text, narration switches back and forth between the fire and a select group of witnesses, journalists and fire fighters. Around the middle of the book, people are introduced one right after the other and stories overlap; it is frantic and hard to follow. This may be purposeful. In a way, the text seems to mimic the frenzy of the fire. The illustrations and photographs, many of which are from the Chicago Historical Society, newspapers and Harper’s Weekly, are products of the time period being described. However, while authentic, the whole book is sepia toned and as a result sort of drab looking.

I gave the audio version of this book four stars, but I would give the actual text three. I dislike music on audio books, especially cheesy music intended to set an ominous mood, which is how this recording begins. The pace of the reading is brisk, which I appreciated because most audio books seem to take forever to listen to—this one did not. Also, because it’s recorded on Playaway, the annoyance of switching disks is eliminated. The quality of the recording sounds tinny and breathy, but after a while you get used to it. At dramatic moments toward the beginning of the text, the reading is slow and drawn out for emphasis. I found that a little irritating. There is enough drama in the story itself. All of the yelling is the same. Yet, Mali does alter his tone for male and female, adult and child voices. The best thing about the audio was that it propelled me onward. I’m not certain I would have finished this book or enjoyed it as much had I not listened to it.

In discussing the Newbery award criteria, this text is “accurate, clear and organized.” It is obvious that Murphy introduces the characters toward the beginning of the text and then continues their individual stories throughout the remaining chapters. It reads somewhat like a novel, which is an innovative way to approach information text. The text was also thoroughly researched and includes images from the Chicago Historical Society. The “delineation of characters” is clear aside from the frenzied descriptions of the fire. However, the main characters are easily traced throughout the text. The setting is very specific—Chicago, 1871. The plot is developed through the sub-plots of the main characters. This text does contribute a detailed account of the Chicago Fire to the annals of American literature. Yet, if I were a committee member, I might argue that the enjoyment of the text, at least my enjoyment, relied on the audio.
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Mallory I am glad that you enjoyed this story. I was unfamiliar with a lot of details of the Chicago fire, and this story was very enlightening. I think that kids would enjoy hearing/reading about the details of such a historic event.


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