Brief Reviews


The Circus Fire

In spite of wartime manpower shortages and uncertain rail transport, the Greatest Show on Earth rolled into Hartford, Connecticut, on July 5, 1944, and set up for a profitable stand in a traditionally circus-loving town. The weather was that fiercely hot, sticky, lung-clogging sort that afflicts the lower Connecticut Valley in summer, and members of the matinee audience (predominantly women and children) were wearing the least and lightest clothing possible. When fire hit the big top, the death toll -- 167 -- was terrible. Mr. O'Nan's account of the tragedy is gruesome but fascinating. It covers circus methods and lingo, the adventures of survivors, the operation of the disaster-rescue plans that the city had laid to cope with the German attack that never came, the hideous business of identifying the dead, and the subsequent lawsuits. There are many odd episodes and bits of information. When one survivor made it safely home, she was welcomed with five bowls of ice cream. Some convalescents from Bradley Field Station Hospital were quickly whisked to safety by their Red Cross escorts, who then had great difficulty in preventing their more able charges from running back into the fire to help civilians out. Finally, there is the matter of "Little Miss 1565," a pretty child, not badly burned, who remains unidentified despite years of detective work and red-herring rumors. Mr. O'Nan's research has been prodigious, and his presentation of his findings is expert.


Baltimore's Mansion

Mr. Johnston is the author of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, an admirable novel about Newfoundland. His present book is a memoir of his own family's life on the Newfoundland peninsula that Lord Baltimore, back in the seventeenth century, named Avalon. He had never set eyes on the place, and when he did, he left in some haste. His Catholic colonists stayed, and some survived. Mr. Johnston's people were latecomers who joined the hardworking, cash-short society of the place and did well by local standards. Mr. Johnston has an interesting story to tell, and presents it with great skill. He shifts adroitly from past to present, evokes character deftly, describes deadly weather and beautiful scenery and dour wilderness superbly, and reports an explosion of "mummers" on a train with subtle humor. His memoir is frankly nostalgic, for he is one of those recalcitrant Avalonians who lament their country's lapse into a mere province. He is likely to convert most readers to his view.


The Social Lives of Dogs

Ms. Thomas does not confine her interest to dogs. Cats and people are included in her multi-species society, all gathered, on one occasion, in her kitchen awaiting their assorted meals. All underfoot, and all hungry. Ms. Thomas has no use for those who condemn anthropomorphism. They are simply ignorant types who do not actually observe animals. She does, and her careful, sympathetic view of their actions and interactions produces consistently engaging anecdotes and recognizable characters. The No. 2 dog worries about her position to the point of neurosis. Rajah, the boss cat, is profanely eloquent over an impertinence. Ms. Thomas writes with cool precision, but the emotions, her own and the animals', are there and convincing.


The Secret Lives of Words

Mr. West loves words, particularly those with peculiar histories, and he writes about them with irreverent wit and insouciant scholarship. This book is no thesaurus. It is plain fun.


Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga

It may still be possible to graduate from a respectable school believing that Vikings were murderous seagoing thieves who wore horns on their helmets. It is no longer necessary to wade through ill-provisioned libraries and secondhand-book stores to correct that misconception. A number of authorities have contributed to this fine history of medieval Scandinavia, which covers religion, arts, trade, exploration abroad, and daily life at home. The text extends to later influences on literature and even to amusing trivialities like the Kensington Stone. The illustrations are lavish and well chosen, and the maps are excellent.


Wild Life

The narrator of Ms. Gloss's ultimately ambiguous novel is Charlotte Drummond, a ferocious turn-of-the-century feminist who supports herself and her five sons by writing the sort of novels in which "girl-heroes" lead Indian tribes or demolish dragons with courage, brains, and élan. (Drummond is a great admirer of Jules Verne.) When her housekeeper's small granddaughter goes missing from a lumber camp, Drummond joins the search. Wilderness heroics prove to be decidedly unexpected -- so much so that one is entitled to wonder whether hallucination is involved. What is definitely involved is a lively re-creation of life along the Columbia River, with old jokes and historical detail and a memorable heroine. Charlotte Drummond faces the world with a bullwhip tongue, a stiff upper lip, and the assumption of command. That assumption gets modified.


Evening Clouds

Mr. Shono's novel of Japanese family life makes Little Women seem downright melodrama by comparison. Events are revealed through the sensibility of Mr. Oura, a literary man given to procrastination. His wife is inclined to small economies, because they started married life with very little money. They have a busy, alarmingly well-organized daughter in high school, a mildly irresponsible son in middle school, and a boy just starting primary school. They live atop a minor mountain on the outskirts of Tokyo, with fine views all around, woods below them, and nothing to worry about but typhoon winds. The book is a collection of seemingly casual vignettes about buying pears or planting shrubbery or evicting centipedes from the attic. Each little episode, however, has its overtones, all of which lead obliquely back to the title. The children are growing up, a housing development is gnawing away at the forest, time and the modern world will submerge their mountain. This is a delicate, sad novel that never admits to sadness.

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