Sweeping but intimate, four lives and a community are irreparably changed in this story of a 19th-century theater fire.
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Author, The Magnolia Palace
One of the reasons I love reading historical fiction is the opportunity to be transported into the heart of a period of history or shocking event I knew little about before I opened the cover. Rachel Beanland checks every box in her latest novel, set in Richmond, Virginia in 1811 and centered around a tragic theater fire that took seventy-two lives.
In haunting yet beautiful prose, The House Is on Fire depicts the fateful sequence of events from four perspectives: Sally, a recent widow with an uncertain future; Cecily, a teenage slave whose terrible treatment at the hands of her owner’s son renders her far older than her years; Jack, a young stagehand desperate to perform on the stage; and a blacksmith named Gilbert whose brave actions that evening are discounted due to the color of his skin. Told over four harrowing days, the narrative structure remains taut as the multiple points of view reveal the depravity—as well as heroism—of those affected by the fire.
I bow in admiration to Beanland for all the research this book must have involved, but that’s only the start. Her dazzling ability to imbue real-life events and figures with passionate detail can be found on every page, and the surprising twists of this story will keep you turning pages faster and faster.
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.