Tuesday, August 11, 2015



On July 6, 1944, thousands of fans made their way to Barbour Street in Hartford, Connecticut, to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance. Not long after the show’s start, a fire broke out and spread rapidly as panicked circus-goers pushed and scrambled to escape. Within 10 minutes the entire big top had burned to the ground, and 167 people never went home.

Big Top Burning recounts the true story of one of the worst fire disasters in US history. It follows the tragic stories of the Cook family—including children Donald, Eleanor, and Edward, who were in the audience that day—and 15-year-old Robert Segee, a circus employee with an incendiary past. Drawing on primary sources and interviews with survivors, author Laura Woollett guides readers through several decades of investigations and asks, Was the unidentified body of a little girl nicknamed “Little Miss 1565” Eleanor Cook? Was the fire itself an act of arson—and did Robert Segee set it? Young readers are invited to evaluate the evidence and draw their own conclusions.

Combining a gripping disaster story, an ongoing detective and forensics saga, and vivid details about life in World War II–era America, Big Top Burning is sure to intrigue any history or real-life mystery fan.


There is something remarkable compelling about disaster stories.  Fire especially is something that the human race is fascinated with, sometimes in a good way, all too often in a negative way.  Here we have a story of one such fire, a fire that may have been started on purpose.  The ongoing mystery is part of the draw here as the author presents what is known about the events leading up to the fire and what followed. Like all too many historical events, the answer is not clear-cut and I appreciated the way the author made that clear.  Like many disasters this one could have been prevented, but human beings tend not to make needed changes until the need blows up in our faces.  This book reads very much like a novel making it a great addition to both personal and shared libraries.


From colonial times to the modern day, two things have remained constant in American history: the destructive power of fires and the bravery of those who fight them.

Fighting Fire! brings to life ten of the deadliest infernos this nation has ever endured: the great fires of Boston, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Francisco, the disasters of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the General Slocum, and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, the wildfire of Witch Creek in San Diego County, and the catastrophe of 9/11. Each blaze led to new firefighting techniques and technologies, yet the struggle against fires continues to this day. With historical images and a fast-paced text, this is both an exciting look at firefighting history and a celebration of the human spirit.


Fire is both an incredibly fascinating phenomenon and a sometimes terrifying reality.  Fighting Fire shares with the reader the terrifying side of fire and the courage of those who fight it.  Each chapter focuses on one of the ten major fires that caused both tremendous damage and in some cases, loss of life.  The book is over 200 pages and so is likely to appeal to more advanced readers, although the many photographs included do a great job breaking up the text.  The text also reads more like a narrative making the book easy to read.  The large font and spacing also add to the ease of reading the book. This book highlights how far civilization has come in the fight against fire while also reminding the reader of the sacrifices that people have made along the way to achieve these advances. This is the type of book that makes history come alive to the reader.

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