The action comes fast and furious in Rachel Beanland’s second novel, The House Is on Fire, inspired by the real-life fire that occurred in Richmond, Virginia, on December 26, 1811, and has been described by many historians as the first great disaster of our young nation. The calamity burned down the city’s famous theater during a sold-out performance, killing 72 people and becoming international news.
In Beanland’s retelling, the story unfolds in a quick succession of short chapters told from the perspectives of four real people who experienced the events firsthand. Sally Henry Campbell, daughter of Founding Father Patrick Henry, is in an expensive box seat on the third floor with other high-society folks. Cecily Patterson is in a crowded lobby seat with other enslaved and destitute people relieved to be escaping reality for a few hours. Jack Gibson, an orphan and aspiring actor, is backstage as the stagehand in charge of props, including the chandelier that ultimately causes the house to erupt in flames. Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith, runs to the theater, putting himself in danger to save the lives of over a dozen white women and men.
Through the author’s extensive research into letters, census data and newspaper archives, as well as her historically accurate creative liberties—both of which Beanland elaborates upon in her author’s note—The House Is on Fire captures the disastrous night hour by hour, reminiscent of watching a true crime drama on TV. Most importantly, Beanland’s choice to explore the tragedy through four very differently privileged people allows the story to go beyond facts and into the moral fabric and social norms of the time. It is disturbing to be reminded of the vice grip of racism, class and sexism while a deadly fire rages on.
Times sure have changed, but the choices made by Sally, Cecily, Jack and Gilbert resonate deeply. “Would I do the same?” is a question that inevitably pops up often for the reader. And so does the realization that proverbial fires continue to burn around the world as we individuals try to save ourselves and others.
Fast-moving, character-driven and action-packed, The House Is on Fire is simply a thrill to read.