Book Review: Big Top Burning

Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show on Earth
Published By: Chicago Review Press
Publication Date: June 1, 2015
Page Count: 176
Source: Kindly Provided by Publisher
Middle Grades - Nonfiction

On a fateful July day in 1944, more than 6,000 people attended the circus in Hartford, CT, enjoying a morale-boosting diversion from the difficulties of life on the home front during World War II. 167 of them never made it home. Big Top Burning covers the circus fire that affected the lives of so many, and the investigations that followed. 

Chapter by chapter, Woollett follows the arrival of the circus, the fire itself, the aftermath, the hospital treatments, matching up unknown/unclaimed victims, and whether or not the fire was an act of arson. Throughout, Woollett gives great detail about the events without being unnecessarily gory or morbid. She describes how lost children were cared for by strangers until they could be returned home. She explains how some people tried to profit from the disaster. The book also contains some truly excellent photographs from before and after the fire. 

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the history of the investigation surrounding Robert Segee who may or may not have set the fire. He was the subject of investigation and a person of interest regarding the devastating fire throughout his life. He was still being interviewed about the fire by police even into the 1990s! He died in 1997. 

What makes Big Top Burning so great for middle school is that it has lots of possibilities for writing projects across subjects. Students could write about circus life and hazards, emergency response in the 1940s, greater trust in strangers then vs. now, or opinion pieces about Segee’s guilt or innocence. I can see lots of options for using this book. 

 As I read, one thing I wished for was greater context in which to situate the events of the book. Knowing a little more about how circuses worked in the 1940s would have been helpful. How was security different then compared to today? What was life like for kids in the 1940s that would make a circus such a huge treat? Overall, though, Big Top Burning would make a great addition to a school curriculum or to a classroom library. 

Final note: I know that we aren’t supposed to judge books by their covers, but this one deserves special mention. As I was reading Big Top Burning, my rising 7th grader caught a glimpse of the cover and asked if he could read it when I was done. He found both the topic and the cover intriguing. So, kudos to Sarah Olson for the middle-school-eye catching cover design.

Big Top Burning investigates the 1944 Hartford circus fire and invites readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence
The fire broke out at 2:40 p.m. Thousands of men, women, and children were crowded under Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s big top watching the Flying Wallendas begin their death-defying high-wire act. Suddenly someone screamed “Fire!” and the panic began. By 2:50 the tent had burned to the ground. Not everyone had made it out alive.
With primary source documents and survivor interviews, Big Top Burning recounts the true story of the 1944 Hartford circus fire—one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. Its remarkable characters include Robert Segee, a 15-year-old circus roustabout and known pyromaniac, and the Cook children, Donald, Eleanor, and Edward, who were in the audience when the circus tent caught fire. Guiding readers through the investigations of the mysteries that make this moment in history so fascinating, this book 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? Big Top Burning combines a gripping disaster story, an ongoing detective and forensics saga, and World War II–era American history, inviting middle-grades readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence and draw their own conclusions.