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Reading Marks 68th Anniversary Of Hartford Circus Fire

Michael Down's 'The Greatest Show' A Collection Of 10 Tales


July 01, 2012

It was stunningly hot and humid that morning, the way Hartford feels when summer gets stuck in the Connecticut Valley, and my dad made a fateful decision.

"It's just too hot. We're not going," he said, even though he'd already bought tickets. I was nearly 3, too young to understand what I would be missing, but they tell me I cried anyway.

My dad disappointed me but very well may have saved our lives. It's believed that 168 people died and about 700 more were injured among the 6,000 or more trapped, burned and trampled in the blazing Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus tent on July 6, 1944. The disaster permanently scarred many survivors — and the city itself.

That's my circus fire story. Many who had family in Hartford then have one to tell.

Michael Downs has 10.

Downs, 47, a former Courant sportswriter and now an assistant professor of English at Towson University in Maryland, has just published a collection of 10 related stories called "The Greatest Show" (Louisiana State University Press, $23). Not every story focuses directly on the fire, but its aftermath affects all the characters, beginning with the grim days of burn-ward recovery and lasting for decades to come.

He will discuss and read from his book Friday, July 6, the 68th anniversary of the fire, at 5:30 p.m. at the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

"The Greatest Show" is Downs' second book about the city where he was born and lived till age 3, before his family moved to Glastonbury and then to Arizona. The first was the nonfiction "House of Good Hope: A Promise for a Broken City," an account of the lives of five high school athletes in Hartford that won the 2007 River Teeth Prize for Literary Nonfiction.

"I miss Hartford," Downs said in a recent telephone conversation from his Baltimore home. "I'm writing my way back."

"I miss its sense of history and its sense of place. I like places with a sense of self and stability that are part of a continuum.

"I like there to be ghosts around."

Then he adds: "and grinders." He's eaten them in many cities, "but they're not as good as the ones on Franklin Avenue."

Downs' family — Irish on his father's side, Polish on his mother's — has its own circus fire story.

"It may be apocryphal, but I heard my grandparents talking about it with neighbors. My grandfather was supposed to take my father, who was 3 then, to see the show, but my grandparents were divorcing, and there had been some drinking, and my grandmother said to him: "You are not taking him anywhere."

He's heard many similar stories, such as mine. It seems, says Downs, that "there are more people who did not attend the circus that day than there are who did not go on the Titanic."

In the book, those who do go include Ania Liszak, a young Polish immigrant who has begun to realize she doesn't love her husband, Charlie. With her is Teddy, their toddler son.

Inside the big tent, which had been waterproofed with a dangerous combination of paraffin wax and gasoline, here is what Ania sees:

"…a flash of orange appeared on the other side of the big top, then rose up the wall of the tent. Ania thought it must be part of the performance, it seemed such a miraculous thing. But the crowd fell quiet, and then a thunder rumbled from all around and someone yelled "Fire!" and the thunder exploded, flames charging up and across the billowing roof…"

Mesmerized by the fire, in which she sees the scarred face of the sacred Polish icon, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, and cradling her terrified son, Ania steps forward into the flames.

Ania and Teddy survive, after excruciating pain and treatments, and so does her marriage to Charlie. Sophie DiFiore, a newspaper columnist, does not, leaving her young brother Nick, a boxer, to mourn. Charlie, Nick and his son, Franco, are recurring characters in "The Greatest Show."

Also affected is Ellen Patterson, a wealthy and childless West Hartford woman who has befriended Ania, her housecleaner. It was Ellen who left some circus tickets out where Ania could filch two. Ellen helps her through recovery, but risks growing too close to little Teddy.

Later, as a grown man, Teddy will return with his wife to Hartford to see a different circus troupe on a Tuesday in September, which turns out to be the day when all America cried. How the circus performers handle that tragedy — which Downs never explictly names, no does he need to — is one of Downs' most haunting and moving stories.

Teddy, whose face and hands were spared but whose body bears a permanent patchwork of silver and purple scars, appears in the most stories, struggling to make sense of what happened, because he has no memories of the actual event. Or so he thinks.

"I identify with all the characters," Downs says. "They're all in part autobiographical and in part not me at all. But Teddy has a world view closest to mine."

The book came together slowly, and individual pieces first appeared in literary reviews and anthologies.

"I wrote it story by story," Downs says, "and I didn't know it would be a book for a while. I had written two or three stories before conceiving the book."

He sent his mother the story "Ania," and she wanted more.

"She said to me, 'Teddy's life is in the balance. Teddy survives, doesn't he?'

Downs reminded her that the boy lives through the fire, but she repeated: 'Teddy survives, doesn't he?"

"So that told me I should write more about Teddy," he says.

Downs did extensive research for the book. He readStewart O'Nan's 2000 nonfiction account, "The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy," and former Courant reporter Lynne Tuohy's stories, published 50 years after the fire, which included invaluable oral histories, along with contemporary accounts in The Courant's archives.

Other helpful sources were Red Cross pamphlets from 1945 on wound care that used the Hartford disaster as a case study. Because of World War II, Hartford had a good civil defense structure in place that aided rescue efforts, and the burn care, outdated now, was considered cutting edge then.

For some understanding of how painful such burns can be, Downs once held his hand over a hot stove burner for as long as he could stand it.

"The helplessness of it, and the thought that there was no escaping it — that was the hardest for me," he says.

There is some debate over whether his book should be called "a hybrid" or "a novel in stories" or "linked stories."

"I'm not going to argue with any of them," he says, though he notes the distinction is important to marketers and booksellers, because some readers do not like the short story form.

"They say: 'If I'm going to commit to reading, I want to be with those characters a long time.' "

"I wanted an epic feel to it, something with a largeness to it," he says of his book. "And when I was writing the final story, I knew it should be able to stand alone and also give the book a sense of closure.

"I kept upping the stakes for myself."

Downs says sports writing taught him to cover a game and then let it go, "but there was a lot in the periphery and aftermath" that he never got to write about.

"I wanted to write the stories I couldn't get into the paper," he says.

Teaching college-level English also has helped him as a writer.

"I get to talk to smart kids about literature," he says. "It's like being in the best book club. And it makes me engage literature more deeply and come to understand what other writers are doing."

On http://www.blogger.com, Downs writes about loving the music ofB.B. King and the writing of Anton Chekhov.

"B.B. King is so good at playing the silences, at playing what's not there, that he is a good reminder to me as a writer," Downs says. "He makes sorrow art, and makes it beautiful."

He admires Chekhov "for his keen observation of characters and his nonjudgmental way of examining them."

Downs also has a blog with his wife, former Courant reporter and editor Sheri Venema. At "Him + 17: An Older Woman, A Younger Man," they write about their 17-year age difference and 19-year-old marriage.

His next book project is already underway: a novel about a Hartford dentist in the 19th century. Yes, that would be Horace Wells, who first used nitrous oxide, or "laughing gas" to anesthetize patients, but was ridiculed, became an addict and died a suicide.

For a writer of fiction, Downs says, "Wells is fascinating for what we know and what we don't know about him. There are lots of gaps in the record," which the writer's imagination will fill.

Downs was a kid when he first visited the historic Twain house, to watch a jumping frog contest.

"I'm really excited about reading a bit and having a discussion at the Twain House," Downs says about Friday's event.

"It's always been part of my image of what Hartford is all about."

MICHAEL DOWNS will give a free talk about "The Greatest Show" on Friday, July 6, at 5:30 p.m. at the Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford, following a 5 p.m. reception. Information: 860-247-0998 , http://www.marktwainhouse.org or http://www.michael-downs.net .

Carole Goldberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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