Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, November 21, 2022

Monday, November 21, 2022: Maximum Shelf: The House Is on Fire

Simon & Schuster: The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland

Simon & Schuster: The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland

Simon & Schuster: Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Simon & Schuster: Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

The House Is on Fire

by Rachel Beanland

In Rachel Beanland's powerful second novel, The House Is on Fire, the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811--one of the deadliest events in early U.S. history--has personal ramifications for four protagonists, but also provokes public mourning and vengefulness. Moving at a propulsive pace, the novel rotates through the perspectives of these main characters--two men and two women; two white people and two enslaved Black people--caught up in the tragedy and its aftermath.

On December 26, 1811, the Virginia theater hosted a double bill: a translation of Denis Diderot's play The Father, followed by a pantomime. Just after the first act of the pantomime, a lit chandelier was lifted into the wings, setting the backdrops and rafters ablaze. It was at this point that the cry went up: "The house is on fire!"

Before this moment of crisis comes, Beanland introduces each of the key players. First, readers meet Sally Campbell, a daughter of statesman Patrick Henry and 31-year-old widow--her husband, Robert Campbell, a Scottish tobacco merchant, died recently. With her brother- and sister-in-law, Archie and Margaret, she takes her place in a third-floor box. From the private glamour of the boxes, readers descend to the second-floor gallery, where enslaved Blacks, freedmen, drunks and prostitutes sit. Nineteen-year-old Cecily Patterson is a house slave who must cater to 16-year-old Maria Price's every whim--and submit to Maria's older brother Elliott's sexual appetites. Tonight, she is serving as Maria's chaperone to the theater, and finds herself seated beside "the most heavily made-up whore she's ever encountered."

Meanwhile, Gilbert Hunt exits a Baptist meetinghouse and passes the theater on his way to the Mayo-Preston estate to visit his wife, Sara, a slave in the kitchen house. He knows that Sara's charge, Louisa, is watching the play, so he hopes to steal a moment alone with his wife. Gilbert works hard as a blacksmith, saving up to purchase their freedom.

The fourth perspective is that of Jack Gibson, a 14-year-old stagehand with the Placide & Green theater company. There's a known problem with the pulley that raises the chandelier. Jack is so busy with his tasks, and then so rapt watching the performance, that he forgets to take the chandelier away before the forest scene begins. He can think of no way to lower the chandelier, snuff the lights and lift it back up while the scene is in progress. Despite Jack's protests, the manager orders him to raise the lit chandelier into the flyspace.

And the rest is history, as they say--the record shows 72 casualties, including Virginia's governor as well as six Black people--but Beanland fleshes out the story behind the numbers, allowing readers to feel the terror of being trapped in a burning building and to rage at the arbitrariness, or in some cases the injustice, of who survives and who perishes. Jack exits quickly via a stage door; Cecily is one of the first out of the gallery. But Sally and family find evacuating the boxes difficult. Margaret is nearly overcome in a stampede, and the central staircase collapses before they reach it. The only option is jumping out a third-story window.

Gilbert hears news of the fire and runs to help, catching a dozen white women as they jump out of the theater windows. His heroism contrasts with others' selfish jostling to save themselves. Sally is unscathed by her plunge from the third floor, but Margaret has a badly broken leg and is carried to the home of Mrs. Cowley, a Native American healer who tends to the burns and wounds of the many victims brought to her door. Beanland weaves in fascinating information about the limited medical knowledge of the time--all too often, doctors had to resort to amputation--here and in earlier parts of the novel, where the author writes of potions Sally took for infertility, and abortifacients used for unwanted pregnancies.

The novel takes place over just four days, from the night of the fire to the day of the collective funeral, while the theater company hopes to deflect blame by spreading a rumor that the fire was started by rioting slaves, and there is diverging newspaper coverage of the tragedy. The pace is brisk, with the point-of-view changes becoming more frequent after the fire breaks out, heightening the tension. Beanland makes clever use of theatrical metaphors, hinting that some of these characters will have surprising second acts, and that the fire will be just an intermission in Richmond's vibrant cultural life.

Painstakingly researched and full of historical detail and full-blooded characters, Beanland's (Florence Adler Swims Forever) novel dramatizes the range of responses to tragedy and how people rebuild their lives: Sally finds untapped wells of courage during the fire and after; Cecily sees in the chaos of the tragedy a chance for escape and freedom; Gilbert, the selfless hero, dreams of a life with Sara, yet is thwarted anew; Jack wavers over telling the truth.

The House Is on Fire is highly recommended to readers of Geraldine Brooks's March and Karen Joy Fowler's Booth. --Rebecca Foster

Simon & Schuster, $27.99, hardcover, 384p., 9781982186142, April 4, 2023

Simon & Schuster: The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland

Rachel Beanland: Disaster Allows Characters to Prove Who They Are

(photo: Tania del Carmen Fernández)

Rachel Beanland is the author of Florence Adler Swims Forever, which was an Indie Next pick, named one of the best books of 2020 by USA Today, a New York Times Editors’ Choice and received the 2020 National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction (Greenberg Prize). Beanland earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University and lives with her family in Richmond, Va., the setting for her second novel, The House Is on Fire (Simon & Schuster, April 4, 2023), about the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811--one of the deadliest events in early U.S. history.

Your novel powerfully shows how the same tragedy can bring out the best or the worst in people. Do you think of this story as having particular heroes and villains?

I do! It's funny--there's this villainous character in my first novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever, and whenever I'd get asked about him, I always made a point of saying that I didn't believe in writing bad people, just regular people who do bad things. I might be revising that position, however, because in The House Is on Fire, there are a few characters who I'd 100% qualify as villains. Likewise, there are some really good people who risk life and limb to do right by the people around them. One of the benefits of writing a disaster is that your characters get the chance to prove who they are pretty quickly.

As I was reading, I couldn't help but think about other national tragedies such as 9/11 and Covid and the fiction that's been inspired by them. Was there much of an immediate literary response to the fire? How would you see your book as fitting into a lineage of disaster narratives?

Today, we can point to the popularity of novels like Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which came out after 9/11, and Emily St. John Mandel's Sea of Tranquility, which was written during the pandemic, and draw a line between our love for these disaster novels and our need to process our collective grief. But in 1811, novels were still considered frivolities for women of leisure, and almost all of the novels American women were reading were imported from England.

Richmond's literary community was dominated by men such as Thomas Ritchie and William Wirt, both of whom wrote nonfiction, and in the days and weeks after the fire, first- and second-hand accounts, sermons and a little poetry began to appear in the local newspapers as well as those up and down the eastern seaboard. Many of the sermons were reprinted in book form and sold as commemorative items, and at least one popular (and rather morose) poem was reprinted on a broadside and widely circulated. It's not until decades (and in some cases centuries) later that we begin to see plays and eventually novels like this one build on that tradition of meaning-making.

Some of your characters have clear and documented histories, while others were more or less invented. What guided your decisions as to who to focus on, and when to make up figures to suit the plot?

In 1811, Richmond was a city of about 5,000 white residents and 5,000 Black residents, and because the theater had a gallery for free and enslaved Blacks, the fire's devastating effects were felt across both communities. I wanted characters who represented those two communities, and I also wanted characters who would allow me to explore socioeconomic and gender divides. Women died in the fire in much greater numbers than men, and the wealthy were particularly disadvantaged because they were in the upstairs balconies, which proved to be the most difficult to escape. I also couldn't see writing this story without giving the reader a peek backstage, so I chose to follow one character who is associated with the theater company.

You draw a parallel with the present day in terms of how quickly conspiracy theories start to spread. We tend to think of fake news as a recent phenomenon, but of course that's not the case. Why did you want to include this element?

When you're writing fiction that's based on historical events, you've got to learn to read between the lines. For instance, in the fire, there were all these women who had died, and onlookers began to suggest that maybe Richmond's menfolk hadn't done everything they could to save them. In the men's accounts, which were the only accounts initially published, they protested these accusations a little too loudly--a good indication that the accusations had some truth to them.

Like a lot of Americans, I'm really interested in this idea that two people can come through the same experience and tell themselves radically different stories about what happened and who's to blame. We saw it in the last presidential election certainly, but we also see it when we try to make sense of the pandemic, reproductive rights, climate change--the list goes on. Fiction works best when your characters have competing agendas, and in our current age, there is certainly no shortage of those!

How did you manage the extensive research involved in The House Is on Fire?

The research is tough, but it's also extremely rewarding when you get it right. Usually, I spend several months researching a book before I ever write the first word, but even after I've begun to write, I don't stop researching--I just de-prioritize it. I've developed all these little rules to ensure I'm putting my emphasis on writing great prose and not figuring out, for instance, exactly what kind of toothbrushes people used in 1811. I don't do any research in the morning (when my brain is fresh and would be better used writing), and I allow myself to write all kinds of little notes in CAPS in the manuscript. In an early draft, I'll have sentences that read something like, "Sally put the TYPE OF CUP down on the table," and it's not until revision that I go back and try to fill in those small details.

When it came to writing The House Is on Fire, my job was made infinitely easier because the public historian Meredith Henne Baker had published a remarkable nonfiction account of the Richmond theater fire about a decade prior. I went back to all the primary sources--many of which are in the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture--but I also had Baker's work to help me make sense of what I was reading.

You live in Richmond; would you say there's much of a cultural memory of the event? Do you hope that your novel will renew interest in it?

Richmonders drive past the beautiful Monumental Church--designed by Robert Mills--on a daily basis, but I'd guess that less than half the city's residents know the church was built as a monument to the victims of the fire, or that the remains of those victims are buried in the church's crypt.

For about a century and a half, Monumental Church was an Episcopal church, but the church was deconsecrated in 1965 and is now owned by Historic Richmond, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of the city's historic buildings, neighborhoods and spaces. Over the years, Historic Richmond has partnered with the Valentine Museum and other local organizations to host readings, lectures and special events about the fire, and I'm hopeful that this novel will inspire people to support the continued preservation of this historic landmark. --Rebecca Foster

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