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Monday, April 25, 2011

Audiobook Review: The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan

The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy
by Stewart O’Nan
Unabridged, 11 hr. 17 min.
Brilliance Audio
Dick Hill (Narrator)
November 25, 2004
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Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Downloaded the audio from my library
“The acclaimed author of A Prayer for the Dying brings all his narrative gifts to bear on this gripping account of tragedy and heroism-the great Hartford circus fire of 1944. 
Halfway through a midsummer afternoon performance, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus's big top caught fire. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline; in seconds it was burning out of control, and more than 8,000 people were trapped inside. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of survivors, O'Nan skillfully re-creates the horrific events and illuminates the psychological oddities of human behavior under stress: the mad scramble for the exits; the hero who tossed dozens of children to safety before being trampled to death.

Brilliantly constructed and exceptionally moving, The Circus Fire is history at its most compelling.”
Growing up in Connecticut I have been interested in the Hartford Circus Fire since I first found out about it. It was surprising to me that at the time I had first learned of this disaster there were no books published that were just about this incident. Stewart O’Nan, a well known novelist, took on the grueling task of writing this non-fiction account of the historic circus disaster and hit it out of the park!

The first thing that really catches the eye of the reader in this book is the forward by the author. He proceeds to explain exactly why he decided to write this book and what the story means to him. This instantly connected my experience to that of the author – being unable to find any books about this subject and living in the close vicinity of the disaster itself. It really helps the reader to understand how important it was for him to tell this story.

I also really liked the layout of the book. The author brings you through the history of previous circus disasters and uses this to really set the tone and in a way foreshadow the events that would take place in Hartford on June 6, 1944. It also opened a whole new world of historical information and events that I just had to go check out after. He then spends time really helping you get to know many of the people who would eventually become victims, survivors, and heroes of this tragic day. By spending time connecting the reader to these people their ultimate fate during the fire becomes important to you and makes you feel the event more than just reading some statistics. O’Nan then takes you through the events of the fire as seen from different perspectives and then moves into the aftermath at the hospitals, the morgue, police station, fairgrounds. He then continues the story up until the time the book was written following the mystery of Little Miss 1565. I really don’t think that the author missed any angles at which to look at this event – you get a completely well rounded view of the fire.


Reading this on audiobook ended up making this such a surreal experience for me. I work just a couple of miles from the site of this disaster and as I would be driving along to or from work it would happen that the narrator would be talking about sites that I was driving past (various hospitals, the armory, various streets) and it made it so easy to connect with the world of this book. And if I thought it was surreal seeing the places that I was hearing about, imagine my shock when my place of employment ended up in this book! I also seemed to have a physical reaction every time the narrator said the words “Stars and Stripes Forever” – I would just get a shiver. This certainly speaks to the power of the narrator. Dick Hill put a lot of emotion into the words he was reading and at times it felt like I was listening to a well written news account. I could see the world vividly in front of me. The only thing that I think would have made this audiobook better would have been if they could have included the song “Stars and Stripes Forever” – it would have completed the experience.

I whole-heartedly recommended this book or audiobook to all (I have both copies myself)!

You can listen to a sample of the audiobook below (links to Audible):

Play symbol 85x85

Reviews of this book by other bloggers: 

Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia

Also by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan has written several books, both non-fiction and novels, some of those include:

west of sunset
West of Sunset

the good wife
The Good Wife

song for the missing
Songs for the Missing

Find Stewart O’Nan: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. I'm incredibly scared of fires so I'm not sure this book is for me! Eek! On a historical point, I had never heard about this fire either.

  2. I have never heard of this tragedy. What an awful thing to have happened. I know a lot of people died, but I can't stop thinking about all the children who must have died. How terrible! Thank you for sharing, Heather.

    Love your pink circus music playlist!

    Are you still doing the read-a-thon? I have the starting line post up here: http://thetruebookaddict.blogspot.com/2011/04/springs-serenity-read-thon-starting.html

  3. I'll defiantly have to read this books sometime! Seems like an interesting story. Great review!

  4. Meg - After reading this book I would be terrified to actually be under a big top - but things have changed so much in terms of safety procedures (which they didn't have at all then) and in terms of fire proofing and such that it might not be so bad.

    Michelle - I don't remember if I stated it in the above review or in a later post this week, but there were 168 dead and over 700 with burn or crush injuries, mostly women and children (because it was a weekday matinée). I figured I had to have music this week at some point - but do you know how hard it was to actually find circus songs? They didn't have very many - I spent over an hour just getting those 7-8. I am still doing the read-a-thon - just posted my starting line!

    Carole Rae - It was such a well written non-fiction, that at times it read just like a novel or news report. Hope you get the chance to someday.

  5. I remember hearing about circus fires, but never found out about them. This sounds like a well written, emotionally charged book. I love audio books when they are done well. It makes the events being related so much more real.
    Thanks for an interesting post. I look forward to the rest of the posts on this topic.

  6. Librarypat - I agree with you, audiobooks can be awesome if done right, other times they can make an enjoyable book a drag. All about the narrator as much as the author.


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