Picks and Pans Review: The Circus Fire

updated 08/28/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Stewart O'Nan

Novelist O'Nan's true-life account of 7,000 people trying to escape a burning tent during a 1944 matinee of the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford is a gripping portrayal of humanity in selfless bravery—and mindless panic. The blaze, which spread with frightening speed, killed 167 people and injured nearly 500 in the biggest disaster in Connecticut's history. O'Nan interviewed dozens of survivors and families of victims to detail the fire's minute-by-minute horror. One unclaimed body, that of a little girl, became a symbol of the tragedy. As recently as 1990, investigators were re-examining the evidence in efforts to identify her body and determine the fire's cause. O'Nan, however, has refrained from trying to tie things up neatly. He has simply crafted an engrossing and uplifting narrative from the smoldering embers. (Doubleday, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Compelling real-life drama

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