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)