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The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy | [Stewart O'Nan]

The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

In 1944, the big top of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford caught fire during the middle of an afternoon performance. Nine thousand people were inside. In seconds, the big top was burning out of control. The toll of the fire, and its circumstances, haunt Hartford to the present day. But it is the intense, detailed narrative - before, after, and especially during the panic under the burning tent - that will remain with listeners long after they finish this book.
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Publisher's Summary

One of America's most acclaimed novelists turns to nonfiction in this powerful re-creation of the great Hartford circus fire, which took the lives of 167 people and forever changed the city and its people.

On July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, the big top of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus caught fire during the middle of the afternoon performance. Nine thousand people were inside. The canvas of the big tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline. In seconds, the big top was burning out of control. Bleacher seats were fronted by steel railings with narrow openings; the main exits were blocked by caged chutes in which leopards and lions were maddened by the fire.

In re-creating the horrific events of one of America's most cataclysmic civic tragedies, Stewart O'Nan has fashioned both an incomparably gripping narrative and a profound, measured glimpse into the extremes of human behavior under duress. In the madness of the inferno, some, like animal trainer May Kovar and the tragic Bill Curlee (who tossed dozens of children to safety over the lion's chute), would act with superhuman bravery. Others, like the sailor who broke a woman's jaw to get past her, would become beasts. The toll of the fire, and its circumstances, haunt Hartford to the present day - the identity of one young victim, known only as Little Miss 1565, remains an enduring mystery and a source of conflict in the city.

But it is the intense, detailed narrative - before, after, and especially during the panic under the burning tent - that will remain with listeners long after they finish this exceptional book.

©2001 Stewart O'Nan; (P)2004 Brilliance Audio, Inc.

What the Critics Say

"This moving elegy does tribute both to the terrible tragedy and to O'Nan's talent as a writer." (Publishers Weekly)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

4.0 (110 )
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  •  
    P. M. Morris Canberra, Australia 09-14-08
    P. M. Morris Canberra, Australia 09-14-08 Member Since 2005

    Petros

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    "Harrowing and brilliantly detailed"

    As a non-American I knew nothing about the Circus Fire before listening to this book. I now consider myself better informed! :-) This is a masterful piece of investigation and storytelling. The tale spans 55 years and virtually no stone remained unturned by the author's clearly painstaking research. Special credit also to the narrator - he really helped to bring the era of the events alive to me. This is one of the very best Audible books I have listened to over the last three years. Be aware that it can be rather distressing in its attention to detail. The fire itself took just a few minutes but the description from many different perspectives alone took over two hours to read... Highly recommended!

    7 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Bonnie Colorado Sptings, CO, United States 10-17-08
    Bonnie Colorado Sptings, CO, United States 10-17-08
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    "One of My Favorites"

    This is going to be one of my favorite audiobooks, along with Angelas Ashes and Assasination Vacation. The author wrote the book because he moved to Hartford and wanted to read about the fire, but found no book really chronicled it objectively. It isnt for the squeamish, the stories are detailed and the experiences of the victims, survivors, and rescuers are detailed, but I found it a facinating discussion of human behavior under disaster, and a good portrait of the times and the average people who lived in it. What I might be most impressed by, was the preparedness state of Hartford because of other fires, floods, and WW2, and how those plans were put into action in reaction to the circus fire. I doubt that now, even in an age of war and terrorism, that Americans would be prepared like this, and have plans and contingincy plans on all levels, including individual store owners who rushed to turn their delivery trucks into herses and ambulances at a moments notice. Not all the stories are victriolic, there are some selfish villians here, but it does show generally the self sacrificing bravery of Americans, as well as the sensationalism of the press and the bogging down of the judicial system in the aftermath. The narrator is fantastic, giving voices character but not silliness in his presentation. It is a great vocal interpretation of a facinating book.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kristi Richardson Milwaukie, OR, United States 03-19-12
    Kristi Richardson Milwaukie, OR, United States 03-19-12 Member Since 2011

    An old broad that enjoys books of all types. Would rather read than write reviews though. I know what I like, and won't be bothered by crap.

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    "Not for the faint of heart!"
    What made the experience of listening to The Circus Fire the most enjoyable?

    I enjoy history and this was a piece of history that I knew nothing about. A circus fire that killed 167 people and changed Hartford, Conn. profoundly was very engrossing. The author, (who writes fiction) was very succinct in his facts and looked at every aspect of the fire.


    What other book might you compare The Circus Fire to and why?

    Calamity, the Heppner flood of 1903 by Joann Green Byrd. Both are disaster stories and both bring out the heroics of regular people when confronted with adversity. Both were very empowering stories.


    What aspect of Dick Hill’s performance would you have changed?

    He was adequate, I don't know what he could have done better. I just couldn't put him up there with Scott Brick, John Lee or Nadia May.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

    The greatest show on earth in flames!


    Any additional comments?

    While I liked this book, there were times that the numerous descriptions of the fire victims made me squirm and after a time became so repetitive that it was hard to listen to. Overall I learned a lot and came away with a greater understanding of what someone surviving a disaster of this magnitude deals with day to day.

    However, as I said earlier this book was quite gruesome and not for everyone.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kendall Littleton, CO, United States 02-07-11
    Kendall Littleton, CO, United States 02-07-11 Member Since 2010

    listen to me

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    "Wow! A brillian way to convey this tragedy"

    There is no way something this tragic could be relayed in all its detail but the way the author maks this a story including back stories and history of similar events really captures a bigger picture. The details, the descriptions of mangled bodies, and the human reaction to such an event is far more than interesting or educational. The amount of research and quality of this book is amazing. If you read anything on human behavior, American or Circus history you need to hear or read this book. The narration is also well done and I can't give this author, narroter or anyon who came in contact with producing this book enough praise. So much goes unsaid, so much history of the circus era becomes forgotten, and this is one piece that really stands out.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Knitting Nerd Melbourne, Australia 12-22-08
    Knitting Nerd Melbourne, Australia 12-22-08 Member Since 2007
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    "Brilliant but too distressing"

    It is very hard to give this book a star rating because my feelings about it are too mixed. It is fascinating, brilliantly researched and very detailed, but I cannot recommend it. The scene is set so clearly you can imagine in quite a lot of detail what is described - and therein lies the problem. I found I could not get more than half way through listening to it. The details of the deaths and injuries, the state of the corpses and the agonies the victims would have experience were so harrowing I found myself in tears a number of times and haunted by the descriptions for a long time. It is a good book, but be warned as to its content.

    6 of 8 people found this review helpful
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    Book reader Boynton Beach, FL 12-26-09
    Book reader Boynton Beach, FL 12-26-09 Member Since 2004

    Learned to love audiobooks when I was commuting two to three hour a day. I still love listening to a good book, even when I prefer a printed version.

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    "Clear and tender recounting"

    This book has two faces: the first is a clear, comprehensive discussion of the infamous Circus Fire that struck Hartford in the 1940's; the second is a sensitive accounting of the victims, living and dead, who experienced such a terrifying few minutes, without being maudlin or sensationalist. I must say, I didn't expect the book to be so compelling -- I've just downloaded it to listen to it again.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    George Denham Springs, Louisiana, United States 04-15-14
    George Denham Springs, Louisiana, United States 04-15-14 Member Since 2013
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    "A Powerful and Unforgettable Historical Account"
    Any additional comments?

    Beyond doubt, this is a powerful and detailed account of an American tradegy. It was an experience I will not soon forget. Narrator, Dick Hill brings O'Nan's painstakingly researched story to vibrant life. Hill plays every character to perfection in an absolutely stellar performance. If you listen to books, you must listen to this one. Nothing on the printed page could convey the raw emotion as does this audio version.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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    S. Smail Summerville, SC United States 01-23-14
    S. Smail Summerville, SC United States 01-23-14 Member Since 2013

    A 32 year old with a painfully short attention span. Audio books brought me back to reading.

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    "Tragic event. Great telling."
    If you could sum up The Circus Fire in three words, what would they be?

    Tragic. Powerful. Heartbreaking.


    What did you like best about this story?

    It was thorough, and linear. A lot of books seem to jump around in the timeline for dramatic effect (which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't) but this one doesn't do that.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    The story of Little Miss 1565 broke my heart. Afterwards I decided to do a search online and easily found her picture. Seeing it and knowing that was a real, dead little girl made everything hit home for me. After I was done with the book I just kept wondering how on Earth she hadn't been claimed. It's possible someone claimed the wrong body, but how? She was (one would think) the most identifiable of all the victims. Her story stuck with me.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Elizabeth B. Brandt Moscow, ID, US 08-17-12
    Elizabeth B. Brandt Moscow, ID, US 08-17-12 Member Since 2005
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    "Intriguing and Interesting -- Goes on a bit long"

    I really enjoyed this book. It was interesting and intriguing. The narration was excellent. I gave the book a 3 because I think the writer takes too long to resolve a couple of the story lines.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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    Nona GARRETT, IN, United States 08-06-12
    Nona GARRETT, IN, United States 08-06-12
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    "Very descriptive history of long ago"

    I have listened to this twice now. Could not stop. Is a very sad, but needful lesson to be learned. Was told very well.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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