O’Nan alleviates his gripping, tragic story with wry glances at circus history and its better-known personalities and...

THE CIRCUS FIRE

A TRUE STORY

Agonizing hour-by-hour retelling of the worst American circus disaster and its aftermath, seen with a restless, unflinching eye for the details—touching, ironic, and depraved.

“The fire was the size of a baseball, a football, a basketball, a dishpan, a briefcase, a small window, half a tablecloth. . . . One thing people agreed on was that it was small.” How the blaze started on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, remains unknown. At least 167 people died, and several thousand were injured. The resulting bad publicity (and nearly $5 million in civil judgments) not only pushed Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey’s into receivership, it eventually forced the Greatest Show on Earth to discard its sideshow and abandon the outdoor “big top” for the gloomy (but fireproof) confines of concrete sports arenas. For novelist O’Nan (A Prayer for the Dying, 1999, etc.), the event is a small-town tragedy that grew quickly into a national scandal: the show business equivalent of the sinking of the Titanic, inspiring works of fact and fiction and setting off a nationwide hunt for a crazed arsonist, 25 years of courtroom battles, thousands of dollars in donated funds for survivors, and mountains of sensationalist journalism. O’Nan finds epic pathos in the heroics of common individuals and circus performers (clown Emmet Kelly and the Flying Wallendas among them), the bellowing of doomed animals, the panic of the mob, the shameless buck-passing of local officials, and the disgraceful efforts of circus staff to avoid responsibility. Fortunately, co-owner Robert Ringling’s fatuous claim that his paraffin-coated tent could not be fireproofed during wartime without military approval did not sway a Connecticut judge from fining the circus $10,000 and convicting (and imprisoning) five circus staffers for involuntary manslaughter.

O’Nan alleviates his gripping, tragic story with wry glances at circus history and its better-known personalities and performers, as well as interviews with numerous survivors whose lives the fire changed (not always for the worst). (96 photos and illustrations)

Pub Date: June 20, 2000

ISBN: 0-385-49684-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2000

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Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis...

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").

Pub Date: May 15, 1972

ISBN: 0205632645

Page Count: 105

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1972

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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

Possibly inspired by the letters Cleary has received as a children's author, this begins with second-grader Leigh Botts' misspelled fan letter to Mr. Henshaw, whose fictitious book itself derives from the old take-off title Forty Ways W. Amuse a Dog. Soon Leigh is in sixth grade and bombarding his still-favorite author with a list of questions to be answered and returned by "next Friday," the day his author report is due. Leigh is disgruntled when Mr. Henshaw's answer comes late, and accompanied by a set of questions for Leigh to answer. He threatens not to, but as "Mom keeps nagging me about your dumb old questions" he finally gets the job done—and through his answers Mr. Henshaw and readers learn that Leigh considers himself "the mediumest boy in school," that his parents have split up, and that he dreams of his truck-driver dad driving him to school "hauling a forty-foot reefer, which would make his outfit add up to eighteen wheels altogether. . . . I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then." Soon Mr. Henshaw recommends keeping a diary (at least partly to get Leigh off his own back) and so the real letters to Mr. Henshaw taper off, with "pretend," unmailed letters (the diary) taking over. . . until Leigh can write "I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper." Meanwhile Mr. Henshaw offers writing tips, and Leigh, struggling with a story for a school contest, concludes "I think you're right. Maybe I am not ready to write a story." Instead he writes a "true story" about a truck haul with his father in Leigh's real past, and this wins praise from "a real live author" Leigh meets through the school program. Mr. Henshaw has also advised that "a character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way," a standard juvenile-fiction dictum which Cleary herself applies modestly by having Leigh solve his disappearing lunch problem with a burglar-alarmed lunch box—and, more seriously, come to recognize and accept that his father can't be counted on. All of this, in Leigh's simple words, is capably and unobtrusively structured as well as valid and realistic. From the writing tips to the divorced-kid blues, however, it tends to substitute prevailing wisdom for the little jolts of recognition that made the Ramona books so rewarding.

Pub Date: Aug. 22, 1983

ISBN: 143511096X

Page Count: 133

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983

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