Jul 24, 2012
Sometimes reading a great fiction book makes you want to know more about the real story--and sometimes reading a great non-fiction book makes you crave a truly great fictional tale set in the same milieu. Here's two great books, both about the fascinating world of the circus in the first half of the 20th century.
First, non-fiction with The Circus Fire! Stewart O’Nan brings all his narrative gifts to bear on this gripping account of tragedy and heroism--the great Hartford circus fire of 1944. Halfway through a midsummer afternoon performance, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus's big top caught fire. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline; in seconds it was burning out of control, and more than 8,000 people were trapped inside. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of survivors, O'Nan skillfully re-creates the horrific events and illuminates the psychological oddities of human behavior under stress: the mad scramble for the exits; the hero who tossed dozens of children to safety before being trampled to death. Brilliantly constructed and exceptionally moving,The Circus Fire is history at its most compelling.
And now for the fictional take! Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a popular book club title, and was made into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon and Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson. Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continue to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air.
Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.