In an historical novel based on the 1944 Barnum & Bailey's circus tent fire that killed hundreds, two survivors reexamine their lives and marriage while seeking the fire's true cause. By the author of The Port of Missing Men.
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The event at the center of this colorless novel--the Connecticut circus fire of 1944--is not by itself compelling enough to sustain interest, and the characters touched by it--mainly a woman who was burned in the fire when she was six months old and her husband, a firefighter obsessed with discovering who lit the blaze--are blanks. Smith (The Port of Missing Men, 1989) flails about while trying to locate a story here. Margie Potter was hideously scarred by the fateful fire and her mother died in it. As a teenager she meets and marries Charlie O'Neill, who has always been fascinated by the story; yet when he tells her he had a ticket to the circus that day but did not attend, she takes it as a joke. They marry and have a daughter named Martha, all the time setting aside a room of their house where Charlie (in conjunction with his uncle Chick) keeps information about the fire and interviews survivors. Although common knowledge has it that the unsafe material of the circus tent caused it to spontaneously combust on that hot day, Charlie is convinced that it was set by an arsonist. He locates the fireman whose thumbprint is set permanently in the scar tissue on Margie's back (she is dusted and photographed), and identifies a little girl known as Little Miss 1565, whose family never turned up to view her body at the hospital. This project takes up all of Charlie's time. Meanwhile Margie reads voraciously and Martha grows up to go first to Yale and then to law school. Information is thrown in haphazardly about Charlie's abusive father and Margie's strange upbringing with a father who rarely spoke, but these facts never add up to a portrait of either character. A final twist is unsurprising. Oddly unmoving writing about human tragedy. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.From Publishers Weekly:
The fire that roared through the Barnum & Bailey Circus tent in Hartford, Conn., on July 6, 1944, took 169 lives and injured 2000 others. Tirone-Smith ( The Book of Phoebe ) makes that conflagration central to her new novel, a skillfully controlled, moving psychological exploration of secrets, traumas and family relationships. The narrator, Margie Potter, was only six months old on the day her mother took her to the circus; her mother perished, and Maggie herself bears livid scars on her back. Having spent her youth repressing her memories and burying herself in books, Margie marries an intense fireman, Charlie O'Neill, who is singularly obsessed with the fire and determined to find the arsonist whom he is certain set the blaze. Over the years Charlie becomes more and more compulsive about tracking down leads, emotionally distancing himself from Margie and their feisty daughter Martha. The clue to his obsessive dedication, and to the arsonist's identity, comes only when Margie begins to acknowledge her own complicity in his monomania. In matching her narrative tone with her heroine's lower-middle class diction and deliberate emotional restraint, the author risks a slow beginning in order to build suspense in subtle increments. She keeps the prose cool and spare, so that when harrowing details and jolting surprises gradually occur, the effect is potent. The final epiphany opens the narrative in an extraordinary way, forcing the reader to reassess everything. This daringly imagined novel adds a new dimension to an already impressive body of work.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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