(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Stewart O’Nan is the author of a collection of short stories, In the Walled City (1993, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize), and six novels—Snow Angels (1994), The Names of the Dead (1996),The Speed Queen (1997), A World Away (1998), A Prayer for the Dying (1999, which earned the 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Novel), and Everyday People (2001). A sometime editor for Vietnam Reader magazine, he also edited the anthology The Vietnam Reader: The Definitive Collection of American Fiction and Nonfiction on the War (1998).

O’Nan’s novels are dark, rapid-paced, and violent; among his literary influences are Stephen King, Flannery O’Connor, and Richard Matheson. With this background, he is fully qualified to write the horrific story of the fire of July 6, 1944, which burned the big top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, killing 167 people and injuring hundreds more. It is horrific.

O’Nan opens with an epigraph from Ray Bradbury’s 1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes, the famous novel of a circus of horrors that ruins people’s dreams and steals their souls. Not only is the allusion appropriate, but O’Nan’s point of departure is much like that in Bradbury’s fiction as well. He focuses on the experiences of a small town’s ordinary working-class citizens, with their World War II ration stamps and their discomfort in the summer humidity, which he intertwines with the actions of a few flamboyant but villainously negligent characters in charge of circus safety.

Beginning with July 4, the day the circus comes to town and erects its tents on a Barbour Street field, O’Nan slowly sets the stage for the disaster that befell the residents of Hartford, Connecticut. He pieces together the activities and moods of several families who attended the circus that day in search of relief from the dreary routine of wartime, describing where each of them took their places under the big top and enjoyed the first acts of the spectacle. The elephants paraded through, the clowns’ antics made the children laugh, the lions and leopards leapt to their pedestals in the wild animal cages.

Then the fire started on the canvas wall near the spotlights. The big top burned down within minutes, and O’Nan covers those minutes in ninety pages. Quoting the memories of the survivors, he describes the initial disbelief of the audience, many of whom saw the flames but told their children that somebody would come to put out the fire soon. They had no way of knowing that the man in charge of distributing fire extinguishers throughout the tent had neglected his duties. O’Nan also praises the quick thinking and valiant efforts of the live orchestra, who began to play “The Stars and Stripes Forever” continuously as a warning to the carnival folk that something was going wrong. The Flying Wallendas and others halted their acts and ran out to keep the remaining performers from coming in.

O’Nan describes the following seconds in a whirl of survivors’ accounts. The flames licked up toward the roof and began spreading, blown by the eastward breeze. Slowly the audience emerged from incomprehension and shock, and with increasing speed and desperation they got to their feet and tried to escape. O’Nan vividly, painfully, portrays the sights of nearly nine thousand frantic people swirling this way and that, trampling those who fell; the roars and screams of the mob, who were mostly women and children; the smells of burning paraffin used as waterproofing on the canvas, and the infinitely worse smell of burning flesh as the tent collapsed. Most people who are caught in a fire die of smoke inhalation. The circus victims who were not crushed to death were roasted alive.

He documents individual acts of heroism and brutality during those minutes while the crowd sought escape. Boys with penknives slashed open the canvas, saving hundreds of lives, while men shoved women and children out of their way as they fought toward the exits. Hundreds had to climb over wire chutes while the wild animals below were directed back toward their cages; those who escaped with no injury worse than a sleeve ripped by a lion were the lucky ones. Heroes included William Curlee, who helped many children to cross the top of the chutes before falling to his own death.

O’Nan establishes two mysteries resulting from the fire, giving his book a novelistic continuity: the identity of the six-year-old girl known only as “Young Miss #1565” and the identity of the arsonist, if arson it was. At times the story proceeds in a smooth...

(The entire section is 1904 words.)