Stewart O'Nan:
The Circus Fire
Stewart O'nan
  The Circus Fire  
Stewart O'Nan    
Interview with Stewart O'nan

Excerpt from The Circus Fire


Stewart O'Nan claims he did not want to write this book, but we should be grateful he did. A self-described fiction writing machine, O'Nan has put aside his beloved genre in The Circus Fire to embrace the true-life story of a Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus gone painfully awry. With the honest precision of Frank McCourt, O'Nan leads us through the tragic 1944 summer day in Hartford when a circus tent laden with a waterproofing mixture of paraffin and gasoline burned unmercifully, leaving nine thousand people trapped inside the "greatest show on earth."

Most were women and children since men were away at war and within minutes the flames had left their skins cracked and bubbling like a new sunburn. Recounting the stampede and the mass exodus from the tent, O'Nan creates a certain intimacy that makes us feel like these are people we know trying to save their lives. O'Nan tells of mothers and fathers risking their own lives to save children and of soldiers, themselves injured from war, making trip after trip back into the blazing tent to rescue people.

O'Nan leads us from the thrashing tent to the hospital and ultimately to the makeshift morgue at the armory where family members were made to identify relatives by bracelets or remaining fragments of clothing since the fire left bodies a literal heap of ashes. There is also the story of a lone unidentified child known only as Little Miss. At times the book is excruciatingly painful to read, to be sure, but this speaks volumes for O'Nan, who has reassembled the ashes and rekindled a story well worth our attention.

In this issue of Bold Type, you'll find an interview with Stewart O'Nan and an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Circus Fire.

--Cara Hall
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  Photo credit Amy Etra
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