Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Day the Clowns Cried: The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan

Today marks one of the saddest days in circus history.  On July 6, 1944, fire broke out under the big top during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut.  No one left that tent unscathed.

To this day, people are haunted by memories of the disaster--especially those who have read Stewart O'Nan's searing account of the fire.  I first read The Circus Fire more than 12 years ago and I still can't shake it.  I'm an unabashed fan of O'Nan's fiction, but I think this might just be his best book.  Here's a review I wrote for another website back in 2001.

At first, the fire was small.  The flames burned a hole the size of a silver dollar in the canvas wall of the big-top tent.  Very few of the 8,700 people inside saw the smoke and flames.  They were too busy watching the lion act and the Wallenda family's high-wire act—all part of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.  Those who did the see the fire at its origin shrugged and thought, "Somebody will be along soon to put it out."

But nobody doused the flames that afternoon.

What happened during the next few disastrous minutes on July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut changed history.  Those of you who pick up and read The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan will be witnesses to that history and, try as you might, you'll never be able to erase it from your mind.

Reading this minute-by-minute, detailed account of the Hartford Circus Fire is the closest you'll ever come to experiencing the terror and confusion of the event.  O'Nan brings the disaster to life so vividly you'll swear the pages smell like smoke.

The fire, a sad landmark in American disaster history, killed 167 and injured thousands—most of them trampled as panic-stricken circus-goers clogged the narrow exits while trying to escape the burning and collapsing tent.  There were heroes (Bill Curlee who stood on top of a lion cage and pulled dozens of children to safety), there were villains (a sailor who broke a woman’s jaw to keep her from escaping before him) and there were tragic victims (relatives who went back inside in search of loved ones who'd already made it to safety).  The stories are manifold and they are heartbreaking, all of them brought to us under the watchful gaze of O'Nan, a novelist and short story writer (Emily, Alone, Last Night at the Lobster).

O'Nan says he never intended to write the book.  Soon after moving to Hartford, the novelist went in search of an account of the city's "emotional touchstone."  He came up empty-handed.  "So many people had died, I couldn't believe no one had commemorated the event," he writes in the book's foreword.  He started doing research, thinking he'd turn his notes over to another writer, one who specialized in non-fiction.  Instead, the stories wormed their way into his heart.  "I started asking people around town what they knew about it.  Everyone had a friend or neighbor who had been there that day, a grandmother or a cousin.  Everyone had a story."

O'Nan compiled the stories, winnowed down the thousands of witnesses to a manageable two dozen or so, then he stepped back and let the tale tell itself.  With only a few exceptions ("It was snowing fire," is one), O'Nan resists literary flourishes.  Suppressing the fiction-reflex, he presents the story in an exact, clear-eyed style—it's as if we were watching a documentary on the History Channel.  It is the smartest move he could ever make.  There are times when real life needs to be fluffed-up and tinted—this is not one of those times.  The facts of the fire and the testimonies of the survivors and investigators are strong enough to break the stoniest of hearts.

I read through The Circus Fire at breakneck speed and came away shaken and haunted through and through.

Suspense builds as we watch the ill-fated, war-weary crowd gather for the matinee on that stifling hot afternoon.  We're taken inside the huge tent, we sit down next to several families as they watch the lion-tamer's act and then the acrobatic thrills of the Great Wallendas.  We groan at the irony of a vendor moving through the aisles, hawking paper fans and calling, "It’s going to get hotter and hotter."  The band blares, the cats roar, the sawdust swirls.

And then it starts.  To this day, no one knows exactly what caused the fire (though O'Nan follows every investigative lead).  The why and how didn't matter to those 8,700 people; they were only concerned with the what of the moment.

As is our storyteller.  O'Nan really jolted me with these four sentences:
The flames leapt up the roof, and now everybody could see the fire.  No one was going to put this out.  The crowd gasped and then let loose a roar.  The grandstands stood, and the chairs went over with a deafening clatter, Coke bottles rolling down the risers.
O'Nan's description of the fire and panicking crowd-crush goes on for nearly 50 pages.  It's like watching a slow-motion horror film and reading it can be an emotionally-draining experience.

The Circus Fire is liberally sprinkled with photographs—some of them, incredibly, taken just before and just after the fire started.  The pictures of terrified survivors running from the still-burning tent are as haunting as O'Nan's text.

What struck me the most about The Circus Fire was the unselfish, heroic display of human spirit during and after the fire.  In the confusing aftermath, strangers took children under their wing and helped them reunite with parents (those who survived the flames, at any rate).  Residents of neighboring homes opened their doors, served lemonade, treated burns and let survivors use the telephone to call families (of course, there were an opportunistic few who charged five dollars a call).  Emergency workers quickly deployed to set up a makeshift morgue in the armory, lining up the charred bodies on cots and leading relatives through the gruesome task of identification (to this day, several bodies remain unidentified, buried in anonymous graves—most famously, the blonde-haired Little Miss 1565 whose cherubic face struck an emotional chord in America).  In the midst of the awful event, it was comforting to be reminded that mankind does sometimes rise to the occasion.

The circus owners, however, come away smelling like elephant dung.  Starting with Rickett's Equestrian Circus in 1799, circuses in America had been prone to fires, train wrecks and other unnatural disasters.  By the time Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus reached Hartford on July 5, 1944, they'd had their share of troubles that year: political in-fighting between the owners, labor problems and schedule delays.  Surely the least of their worries was the common practice of weatherproofing the big top by coating it with 6,000 gallons of gasoline and 18,000 pounds of paraffin.  It was a proven method for keeping out the rain, they later told the court.  As with the book's other events, O'Nan tells the Ringling story with the emotional balance of a court reporter.

It is, however, one transcript you'll never ever forget.

[For a fictional treatment of the fire, I highly recommend Michael Downs' short story collection The Greatest Show]


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  2. I will try this again--because I remembered this event, particularly the little girl, I will undoubtedly now feel compelled to read this book. As though I didn't have 2 dozen pieces of furniture to paint and sell.

  3. I was just thinking about this fire and this book recently! I thought O'Nan did an amazing job with it.Compelling and horrifying. My family are the Parsons people who they originally thought Little Miss 1565 was. Thanks for the reminder: I am probably due for a re-read.