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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12 Sports Books to Read if You Liked “The Boys in the Boat”

12 Sports Books to Read if You Liked The Boys in the BoatFeeling adrift after finishing Daniel James Brown’s fabulous book The Boys in the BoatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown, and not sure what to read next? Here are 12 ideas. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of these titles; I’ve just been eyeing them all.)

The AmateursThe Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold MedalThe Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal by David Halberstam by David Halberstam

Classic book by an accomplished author which follows rowers competing in the 1984 Olympics.

Buy the book: Print | Kindle

The Red Rose CrewRed Rose Crew: A True Story Of Women, Winning, And The WaterRed Rose Crew: A True Story Of Women, Winning, And The Water by Daniel J. Boyne by Daniel J. Boyne

Follows the US Women’s crew as they prepare to compete in the 1975 World Championships.

Buy the book: Print

The Emerald MileThe Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand CanyonThe Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko by Kevin Fedarko

Exciting adventure tale recounting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Buy the book: Print | Kindle | Audible

Twelve Mighty OrphansTwelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas FootballTwelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football by Jim Dent by Jim Dent

Uplifting depression-era tale of the undersized teams that became some of the best in the state.

Buy the book: Print | Kindle

Our BoysOur Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center RedmenOur Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen by Joe Drape by Joe Drape

Cheerful chronicle of small-town high school sports glory, told by a reporter who relocated from New York to Kansas to follow the team for a year as they attempted to win the state title for a fifth consecutive year.

Buy the book: Print | Kindle

The Glory of Their TimesThe Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played ItThe Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) by Lawrence S. Ritter by Lawrence S. Ritter

Entertaining look back at their baseball careers (and the game as a whole) by players who were in their prime in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Buy the book: Print | Kindle | Audible

One Shot at ForeverOne Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season  by Chris Ballard by Chris Ballard

Inspirational story of an improbable high school coach and his 1971 team who played for the state championship. (I love the fact that the coach was an English teacher with no coaching experience, and want to read the book based on that alone.)

Buy the book: Print | Kindle | Audible

The Bottom of the 33rdBottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game by Dan Barry

Engrossing account of a minor-league game that lasted for eight hours, and the individuals involved in it, including two players who went on to achieve notable major league success: Cal Ripken and Wade Boggs.

Buy the book: Print | Kindle | Audible

The Boys of WinterThe Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey TeamThe Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team by Wayne Coffey by Wayne Coffey

Underdog tale of the “Miracle on Ice” team which was involved in what’s often called the greatest sports moment of the 20th century. Personal stories of players and the coach are interwoven with details on the match between the US and Soviet Union.

Buy the book: Print | Kindle

The Miracle of St. AnthonyThe Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball’s Most Improbable DynastyThe Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty by Adrian Wojnarowski by Adrian Wojnarowski

Inspirational biography of legendary high school coach Bob Hurley follows his team one season (and what a season!)

Buy the book: Print | Kindle

The Perfect MileThe Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve ItThe Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb by Neal Bascomb

Story of the dramatic race to break the four-minute mile barrier in 1954, interwoven with the story of the three men who were all poised to do it first: Englishman Roger Bannister, American Wes Santee, and Australian John Landy.

Buy the book: Print | Kindle

The Great Match RaceThe Great Match Race: When North Met South in America’s First Sports SpectacleThe Great Match Race: When North Met South in America's First Sports Spectacle by John Eisenberg by John Eisenberg

Fast-paced mix of horse racing and history provides a peek at the United States in the early 1800s.

Buy the book: Print | Kindle | Audible

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31 Days of Great Nonfiction: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the BoatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown by Daniel James Brown

There are a handful of books that, when I finish them, I immediately start telling others that they need to read them too. Immediately, if not sooner.

The Boys in the Boat is one of those books.

The story is so engaging, and even if you know whether or not they win the gold medal (and if you read the introduction to the book, you’ll know), it’s still a gripping tale.

The framework Brown uses of focusing on Rantz in particular works well, and keeps it from becoming an unwieldy narrative where you’re trying to keep track of 9 different crew members, plus all the other individuals in the story.

If you like biographies, this has a lot of biography. If you like history, this has it. If you like sports tales, this is one. If you like overcoming-the-odds stories, this is that in spades.

The only reason I don’t want to gush more about this book is for fear that unreasonable expectations will make it impossible to live up to them.

Highly highly recommended. Please, go, read this book.

Publisher’s Description:
For readers of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and Unbroken, the dramatic story of the American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics

Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.

Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant. It will appeal to readers of Erik Larson, Timothy Egan, James Bradley, and David Halberstam’s The Amateurs.

31 Days of Great Nonfiction

I’ve become a huge fan of Daniel James Brown this year, and if you like his writing style, check out his books Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 as well as The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party BrideThe Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown, which came this close to being a pick for the series.

To see all the books featured in 31 Days of Great Nonfiction, go to the series page.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting The Deliberate Reader!