The Circus Fire

  • by Stewart O'Nan
  • Narrated by Dick Hill
  • 11 hrs and 17 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

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.

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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)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

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!
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- P. M. Morris

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.

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- Kristi Richardson

Book Details

  • Release Date: 09-04-2008
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio