The author of Florence Adler Swims Forever returns with a masterful work of historical fiction about an incendiary tragedy that shocked a young nation and tore apart a community in a single night—told from the perspectives of four people whose actions during the inferno changed the course of history.
Richmond, Virginia 1811. It’s the height of the winter social season. The General Assembly is in session, and many of Virginia’s gentleman planters, along with their wives and children, have made the long and arduous journey to the capital in hopes of whiling away the darkest days of the year. At the city’s only theater, the Charleston-based Placide & Green Company puts on two plays a night to meet the demand of a populace that’s done looking for enlightenment in a church.
On the night after Christmas, the theater is packed with more than six hundred holiday revelers. In the third-floor boxes, sits newly widowed Sally Henry Campbell, who is glad for any opportunity to relive the happy times she shared with her husband. One floor away, in the colored gallery, Cecily Patterson doesn’t give a whit about the play but is grateful for a four-hour reprieve from a life that has recently gone from bad to worse. Backstage, young stagehand Jack Gibson hopes that, if he can impress the theater’s managers, he’ll be offered a permanent job with the company. And on the other side of town, blacksmith Gilbert Hunt dreams of one day being able to bring his wife to the theater, but he’ll have to buy her freedom first.
When the theater goes up in flames in the middle of the performance, Sally, Cecily, Jack, and Gilbert make a series of split-second decisions that will not only affect their own lives but those of countless others. And in the days following the fire, as news of the disaster spreads across the United States, the paths of these four people will become forever intertwined.
Based on the true story of Richmond’s theater fire, The House Is on Fire offers proof that sometimes, in the midst of great tragedy, we are offered our most precious—and fleeting—chances at redemption.
The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
A well-researched, insightful story. This was a really interesting historical event to read about and I think those less familiar with the fire that destroyed the Richmond Theatre in Virginia, U.S.A in 1811, will appreciate learning about the details as well. Will be an interesting one to discuss in book club.
Thank you to Book Club Favorites at Simon & Schuster for the free copy for review.
Expected publication: April 4, 2023.
Grab coffee, I’ve written a lot.
The fire incident makes the premise of the story, along with more tragedy centering around contentious aspects within a duality of social tension, particularly racial and sex/gender aspects, sort of building up the plot as told through multiple POVs.
The book is very easy to get into, started off very strong, and I really appreciated the telling of this event in history. Many questions surrounding the event remain unanswered, noting all the who and how in exact detail remains under much speculation that still remains a mystery. The tension around said speculation was also a very compelling piece of the book.
I enjoyed the differing POVs to shape the story, though they were a bit too numerous for my taste. I did eventually adapt to the rhythm and pace of them. I also loved the descriptive aspects of the story, primarily the actionable parts, as well as the settings and room descriptions of the time period as told during opening chapters and scenes.
As much as I appreciated these aspects, I think this book definitely felt a bit Mad Libs to me.
I waned in and out and skim read many parts thereafter. Felt a bit drawn out. 100+ pages too drawn out. Maybe impart due to it reading like here’s a tragic story, some people were bad, others good, with a very stark line and parallel lives that were overtly divided amongst them, viewed sort of through a more modern-day lens with sort of peculiar, speculative banter. Intersectional grievances without gray areas that would have connected them outside of their differences, especially as related to societal norms of the time that I thought might have been more interesting to explore outside of the issues at hand to allow me to gain a full perspective of life, growth, communal, and relational aspects of the time. Especially because the main incident happens so early with much bulk of the action up front, followed by pages upon pages of tiny trails of bread crumbed throughout, then thickened through endless chatter of dialogue, where there is less character development. Would have liked to have drawn from more backstory beforehand to deepen my connection with the people themselves and moving forward as I wanted to sustain the suspense as experienced early on within the book.
I don’t always think storylines need some deep, hidden meaning to be good. Or to be overtly obvious either. So this one, as far as technical side of things can make for a good story, as based on a true story, as stand alone in any case, but it was missing something. Something about starting strong, but then waning through a starting of shallow depth of character and lessened emphasis on inter-relational and community cohesion, to where the interconnectivity as told was amiss for me. Sort of takes oppositional viewpoints as a continual, grinding challenge, in black and white stance, that can never be sufficient in their own right until modern day perspective sweeps in and rights them, which I felt to be a less effective telling of history to me. Reframing of history a bit to tell a story that is based on modern day interpretation at points where I think I would have preferred to have had my own experience and interpretation, rather than be overly guided or told in an austere way that appeared to oversimplify and oversell some of the complexities a bit.
Perhaps because there was this amalgam of many POVs and layered complex issues into parts of the story as others were being told simultaneously, but without as much clear tipping point in each of the character’s lives as they lived on after the main tragedy and how other viewpoints may have changed as a result and therefore their interaction with one another. They all sort of lived in parallel, less integrated lives.
For example, there was this strong sense of female resistance. Sort of told through an idea that woman has to become man, in almost full form, in essence, to have the choice, freedom, and voice as this replacement of sorts that I didn’t find compelling. Sort of this men versus women, us versus them approach, rather men plus women, to then better depict women. Instead ends up as, as most of these notions ultimately end up, really as women who have held each other back by not helping to build each other up because in their largely absent connectivity with each other and assigned roles, and then almost at extreme odds of self-hate with themselves within the story. Modern feminist approach to problem solving that projects cultural values on other cultural, social, and moral values that existed at the time and missing out on introspective and interpersonal growth they would have experienced at that time. Whether personal or collective insecurities, depravity, and bleakness of history, felt preassigned, but did not really dive into the external and internal pressures that came with each stance. Nor explored as much healing and binding amongst each individual and within the community. Race relations was depicted in similar fashion.
There’s sort of less mention of humanistic qualities and less historical context built early within the story that could have been stronger in telling how in keeping society together as a cohesive group, as a family, or as an individual reaching out. Qualities that come from taking a deep look inside oneself to gauge and compare in order to give more depth to the story outside of the tragedy of crime speculation or progressive advancement of society as standardized for today’s expectations.
There was less mention of daily life interrupted, religious aspects on life and hope, less about burial preparations and when in passing mentioned, instead is more of wrath aspect than refuge which I felt to be amiss. And therefore no gain or payoff for personal transcendence, social cohesion, or reliability that would have kept the community going even as factions lay.
I would have also enjoyed more incorporation of general political and economical outlook of the time and a bit more about outlook of freed slaves experiences back into Liberia as was briefly mentioned.
But maybe we’ll see more in another book.
Great writing at points in the beginning, which is what I enjoyed the most, being the shining light when it comes to the more actionable scenes, the strongest reading for me. But then fell off. I think it was because the theme was so compelled to tell a certain message, centered around the reaction of people and function, so much so, that the emotional growth of people as individuals and within the community, outside of the main storyline, felt set aside.
Which I felt sort of missed the humanistic spirit in tone. In fact a bit one-dimensional because there is so much dialogue accompanied by explanatory interjections, made it less and less suspenseful and less reflective reading experience as I read on. I found myself sort of getting lost in the thickness of details that didn’t propel the story forward or in character depth.
There was less emphasis to tell the story of individual agency, hope, sacrifice, meaning, loyalty, pursuit, or honor. Tragedy was portrayed but overshadowed by what felt was pushing for even more additional complexities and too much discourse.
Lines like “which never happens” is this sense of always, this, therefore that, approach to tell story which was thick to read through. If this doesn’t happen, then this will happen. For example dialogue, short in nature followed by an over explanation as to what and why it took place. Narration that explains how things and people seem to be. There wasn’t this, so there was that.
Would have liked less play-by-play detail of the dialogue of post fire theater as told in recurring turn, as sought by every singular perspective of POV as perpetrator, rescuer, survivor, and presumed victim mystery.
Conversations in their extended inquiry through dialogue was drawn out. It didn’t leave as much room for reader interpretation or situational nuance that I think might have been powerful. The discourse of drama with commentary of how people reacted with their rationale as part of the narration where I would have liked more of the expressive emotion behind it in either dialogue or action, maybe more differences in vernacular or something, told in a more simplified way.
They were a bit uneven. Mixed reactions, both passive and active, so it was difficult to understand consistency in characterization. I don’t know if the characters, as multiple POVs, were much different than each other in plain or descriptive words, even outlook of thoughts in omniscient narration, and where dialogue was not always as distinguishable or as much added depth assigned to any one person consistently. Big words, as in expanded vocabulary, was tossed around and made for less distinguishable voice, but the short chapters were the saving grace.
It’s multiple perspectives in POV, but not multi-layered aside from the centering around various aspects of social injustice, countered only with the omniscient narrational aspect in telling the inward thoughts, potential actions, and speculated intentions, which felt less connected and less unique to each character and as a whole since overall, again, as there was less sense of shared norms or community.
Sally’s character, in particular, didn’t seem to fit into the story in time and place, but in author’s note I did end up finding out why. Sort of depicted, as aforementioned, a female rebellion leader, but without much anchoring point. Instead more conformity for modern day outlook placed on the past that I felt was less connected. Takes a lot more artistic liberty to interject more modern, perhaps more personal observations and viewpoints without the centering as depicted in the time where one might be grasping, but not yet fully embracing some of the missing components of character, building of character, changing of character as I think would have been more suited to grounding humanistic behaviors in addition to the timeframe, norms, and culture.
I typically like a bit of risk taking in characterization, but I suppose I’m finding that’s reserved for me in liking it in more exaggerated sense for satyrical or thriller type books for me.
So in the end, operates on this presupposition where life as whole can be lived, where peace, redemption, and forgiveness can only be made through modern lens. For me then, it’s one thing to understand, another thing to deeply speculate and understand a story that didn’t fully deconstruct the complexities in other subplots to the extent and experience I wanted to have. Touching on aspects, but not to the extent to show connection between characters outside of themselves, this was probably my biggest barrier to thoroughly being immersed in this book.
I’d be curious to read more from this author.
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