"The House is on Fire," | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
The Richmond, Virginia theater fire of December 26, 1911, caused a significant loss of life for a young United States of America. Seventy-two people perished and the tragedy made headlines as far away as London. Author Rachel Beanland weaves the stories of four characters, based on actual people, whose lives were affected by the fire, in her thoroughly researched and engrossing historical fiction novel “The House is on Fire."
As Beanland imagines the event, readers meet Sally Campbell, a comely 31-year-old widow attending the theater with her brother Archie and wife Margaret. It’s the height of the social season in Richmond and theater-goers are dressed to the nines. Though Archie may appear to be a gentleman, his heroics come into question when he’s forced to make a decision as the fire surges, people jumping from an upper window to save themselves. Archie’s decision will directly affect his wife and cause heartache for Sally.
Cecily Patterson is at the theater too, a young, enslaved Black seated in the colored section. For Cecily the performance is a temporary stay from the continued sexual abuse she’s suffered at the hands of Maria’s cruel-hearted brother Elliott. Since the age of 4 or 5, Elliot “…treated Cecily’s body like an extension of his own.” News of Elliott’s impending marriage fills Cecily with joy. He’ll finally be leaving the family home, but all hope is crushed when Cecily learns Elliott’s father is giving her to Elliott as a wedding gift. The fire might prove to be Cecily’s saving grace.
Gilbert Hunt, also an enslaved Black, isn’t at the theater that fateful night. He attends a prayer meeting at 9 p.m., then uses his pass to see his wife Sara, a slave for a nearby family. Gilbert is a big man, over 6-feet-tall, a blacksmith who’s “…a natural at the forge.” Gilbert’s size and strength are instrumental the night of the fire, his role as a hero unfolding as flames digest the stairway and panic ensues. Gilbert’s story is especially gripping because so much of it is true—based on documents written about this brave individual who later became a free man.
The reasons for the fire remain mysterious to this day, but in Beanland’s novel the company of actors is to blame—a chandelier, lit with candles, is lifted to the ceiling and sways, causing the paper-like, ceiling-to-floor backdrops to catch fire. Young Jack, an inexperienced backstage hand, with a good heart and faulty conscience, is ordered to raise the chandelier. Rather than taking the blame for the tragedy, Jack is coerced into going along with the actors who blame the fire on a slave revolt, a fabrication that adds drama to the story.
“The House is on Fire” is a solidly entertaining, enlightening book with rich, varied characters, good and evil, enslaved and free. If the novel awakens an interest in learning more about the theater fire, Beanland’s Author Notes will help fill in the gaps.