Read This, Not That: Under a Flaming Sky instead of Circus Fire

Read this not that Historical FiresCompelling history books are some of my favorites to read, and I’m especially partial to ones that tackle lesser-known events. I’m also not afraid of some gruesome details in my reads, so I didn’t hesitate to try Stewart O’Nan’s nonfiction title Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy.

Unfortunately, it ended up being a bit of a slow and ultimately I don’t think it was worth the reading time, unless you have some connection to that event which makes it more interesting for you in particular.

Instead, I’ll suggest Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown. It’s much more engaging and readable. It is one I often pause before recommending because it isn’t appropriate for all readers (beware if you’re squeamish) but if that’s not an issue for you, it was excellent (as all of his books have been).

I’ve written about Under a Flaming Sky before, so if you’re thinking you remember me mentioning it you’re correct – I did, and then I also included it in my 31 Days of Great Nonfiction series in 2013. It’s an amazing book.

By contrast, Circus Fire is fine. It’s serviceable and you’ll learn about the fire in Hartford in 1944. There are heart-breaking details, but it’s never as compelling a read as Brown’s, and I constantly had to force myself to pick it up again and read more of it. I probably should have bailed on it before finishing, but I was interested in learning some of the outcomes and what eventually ended up happening to people in the years after the fire.

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Comments

  1. I’ll have to check it out. I loved The Boys in the Boat, and I’m anxious to read more by Brown. I do love circus stories, but not slow ones, so I’ll pass on the Circus Fire.

    • Yeah, the fire happened at the circus, but it’s not really a circus story. And it is very slow and plodding.

      If you’re not put off by the gruesome factor, Brown’s other book The Indifferent Stars Above is also really good. It’s about the Donner party, so there is some degree of this-is-hard-to-read going on with it. Neither of his other books are quite as good as Boys in the Boat, but that says more about how amazing I thought that one was, rather than any real criticism of his first two. His writing has improved with each book (and I really hope he writes another one before too long).

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