By Rachel Beanland
Publication Date: April 4, 2023
On December 26, 1811, the theater in Richmond, Virginia caught fire during a performance to a packed house. Over 70 people died in the fire, the greatest loss of life yet experienced in the young United States. This novel follows four characters who were directly impacted by that night: Sally Henry Campbell, an upper-middle class widow watching the performance in the third-floor gallery who was still grieving her husband; Gilbert Hunt, a slave who runs to the theater searching for his wife’s young charge but winds up a hero; Jack Gibson, a stagehand who dreams of becoming an actor and struggles with his part in the tragedy; and Cecily Patterson, a slave in the second floor gallery who sees an opportunity in the aftermath of the devastation.
Their stories begin separately but become intertwined in the days after, as each of them must live with the split seconds decisions they made during the fire. All four characters, despite being female, a minor, and/or a slave, had agency (if limited) and they acted on their convictions, which contrasted quite strongly with other supporting characters. The actions and attitudes of the majority of the men in this novel were especially striking, and not in a good way but were true to the time period.
Speaking of the time period, this is such a well researched book. Historical fiction is always my first love and I write it, so I know how difficult it can be to get historical details right. And I’m not even talking about dropping them in here and there to prove authenticity or that the author took the time to know their chosen era. This book could have been written by someone who lived in 1811; that’s how effortlessly the details were woven into the narrative. I did feel like a few parts suffered from name dropping, but considering that at least two of these characters were fairly well-documented people, I think those dropped names were probably real relations or acquaintances.
Kudos to the author for bringing a little-known event to life in a mesmerizing novel. Unlike many multiple POV stories, I was equally invested in each narrative. I’ve considered writing about the Fredericksburg fire of 1807. If I ever do, I’ll be referring back to this novel as a guidebook on how to do it right.
A must-read for historical fiction lovers.
4.25/5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐+
Thank you to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for providing the ARC ebook. I’ve left my review honestly and voluntarily.
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