Monday, June 1, 2015

Big Top Burning

It's July 6, 1944 and thousands are gathered in Hartford, Connecticut for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus event!  Imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the big top.  Author Laura Woollett takes you back to that time and place and sets the stage for the tragedy that occurs that day.

The book reads like an episode of 48 Hours--a narrative retelling the timeline reconstructed as well as a collection of eyewitness and police accounts. How could a fire have started and raged so relentlessly? You can almost feel the flames and hear the screams as the events are retold.  As more and more bodies are found (often burned beyond recognition), a team of volunteers takes on the grueling task of recording any identifying features of each victim and helping those with missing family to try to find loved ones.

What makes the story so fascinating is that one victim--a young girl, seems to be all but forgotten. When she is the only remaining victim to be identified, authorities cannot figure out why her family was not looking for her.  In all the chaos, is it possible that someone claimed and buried the wrong child?  In some cases, parents themselves were hospitalized and identification of a body was left to a relative or family friend.

And was the fire an accident or arson?  If it was an accident, was the circus negligent in their measures to safeguard against fire?  Over the course of decades, this tragedy gets revisited by various people trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.  Woollett carefully lays out the efforts made in this bizarre case while readers speculate about what really happened. This glimpse at criminal investigation in the 40's is both fascinating and frustrating.

For those interested in true crime stories and unsolved mysteries, Big Top Burning will not disappoint.  The book can be purchased from Amazon starting on June 1, 2015.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic version of this book through NetGalley for the purpose of review. 

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