Big Top Burning by Laura A. Woollett Book Review

Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth by Laura A. Woollett
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Release Date: June 1, 2015

On July 6, 1944, thousands of men, women, and children made their way to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a hot day. The tiger show had just finished when someone noticed a fire on one side of the big top tent. Due to a series of mistakes from the water proofing being made of pitch to no fire extinguishers in the tent, the big top was soon ablaze. People rushed to escape, but the crush of people and a blocked exit caused even more chaos and confusion. Within 10 minutes the entire big top had burned to the ground and 167 people never went home.

This is the true story about the events surrounding that day as well as the decades worth of questions. Was the fire really the result of a carelessly tossed away cigarette or was it the act of an arsonist? And what happened to little Eleanor Cook? Was she the unidentified body that was nicknamed 'Little Miss 1565'?

Having not grown up in New England and since it happened so long ago, this is one particular historical account that I had never heard of. Carefully crafted, Woollett weaves together a historical narrative that is both mysterious and compelling. There were a number of times throughout the book that I found myself getting choked up, probably more than I would had this been fiction, because I knew these were not just some characters in a story. The first-hands accounts and careful scrutiny of the various mysteries made the story read more like fiction than non-fiction. Despite the heavy topic, Woollett makes the subject matter and corresponding photographs age appropriate and accessible.

Interesting side note: One of my co-workers is from Connecticut so I showed the book to her. She immediately knew of the incident as her father was in the National Guard at the time and was called to the scene to help with the clean up. That clean up including the sorting of bodies. According to her, people still talk about it.


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a tough subject to tackle. And it sounds like the author handled it well. This sounds like an Erik Larsen style of writing for the younger crowd, one that seeks to solve a mystery while relating a series of real life events. Well done! I'll be getting this one from the library. Thanks for the heads up!