Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Big Top Burning: A Solid Nonfiction Historical Mystery

Premise: This is "the true story of an arsonist, a missing girl, and the greatest show on Earth." The story centers around the 1944 Ringling Brothers fire in Hartford, CT that killed over 100 people. Readers experience the fire itself, the events immediately afterward, and investigations into the cause of the fire.

Title: Big Top Burning
Author: Laura A. Woollett
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Nonfiction
Content appropriate for: Grades 6-9
Format: Digital ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Three adjectives that describe this book: captivating, tragic, memorable

Big Top Burning is not for the faint-of-heart. This nonfiction book reads as part crime-scene investigation, part tragic documentary. Laura Woollett doesn't beat around the bush here. Over the course of this book people, including children, are burned to death, trampled, and suffocated. They die trying to escape. They die saving others. Their burned bodies are identified in makeshift morgues.

This material could have been ruined by either too light a touch - let's just ignore the dead kids over here - or by being too graphic. Big Top Burning threads the middle ground perfectly, never pretending that this event wasn't horrible, but also never indulging in gore for the sake of gore. The primary-source photos were especially intriguing and really added to the tale's impact.

I had never heard of the Hartford circus fire of 1944, and I found the circumstances that led to this tragedy completely appalling. I learned so much about how this event led to better regulations for safety and emergency management, and I just can't believe how much negligence was prevalent at the time. They actually covered the canvas in gasoline and wax to waterproof it. The tent was covered in gasoline! No wonder it burned so well!

Laura Woollett's narrative nonfiction follows several different people who were at the circus that day, similar to Jim Murphy's account of the Great Chicago Fire. This approach really humanized the tragedy, but it also made the narrative confusing at times since it was hard to keep track of so many different people.

Unfortunately, the last section, which chronicles the arson investigation and identification of one missing victim, felt rushed. Although interesting, there weren't as many details here to give this part of the story the same emotional impact as the first part of the book, so it fell a bit flat.

Overall, I recommend this book for those who are interested in fascinating historical events. It's great for readers who have already read and enjoyed books like The Great Chicago Fire and Chasing Lincoln's Killer, but because of some confusing elements, I don't recommend it as a reader's first foray into narrative nonfiction.

3.5 stars

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