One shudders at the fate of the more than 70 people who perished in the Richmond Theatre fire on Dec. 26, 1811 – the first shocking catastrophe in the life of the new nation.
But one celebrates the talent of Rachel Beanland, who, with assurance and acumen, tells the story in “The House Is on Fire,” a historical novel.
As she describes the myriad reactions of the city’s inhabitants to the calamity, Beanland forges deftly described characters — from the valiant to the vile, the supportive to the selfish. She focuses on four, all based somewhat on real figures from history:
Sally Campbell, a recently widowed, childless daughter of Patrick Henry who cares tirelessly for many injured playgoers;
Cecily Patterson, an enslaved teenager who sees the tragedy as her opportunity to escape to freedom from the sexual abuse inflicted on her by her owner’s son, Elliott Price Jr.;
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Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith who rescues many people from the inferno and seeks ways to purchase liberty for himself and his wife, Sara; and
Jack Gibson, a young stagehand who, with others, is partly responsible for the botched placement of the chandelier that ignited the fire. Other theater personnel, in an attempt to deflect blame, spread a vicious lie that the fire started as part of a revolt by slaves; the slander results in a slave patrol that Jack refuses to join.
Beanland, a Richmond resident who holds a master of fine arts degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, conducted prodigious research, which results in a narrative brimming with immediacy and authenticity.
With multiple layers, “The House Is on Fire” offers a bounty of ponderable points, particularly of how tragedy throws people of widely disparate backgrounds together, elicits the best and worst from them, and changes the course of individual lives.
And it provides a searing indictment of slavery, the South’s self-inflicted blight. But do not take umbrage at the author’s use of words such as “Negro” and “colored” – both of which were prevalent at the time.
Beanland’s principled approach to history, her fine-tuned prose, her profound intellect and her benevolent humanity combine to shine in this absorbing novel, one that discerning readers will embrace.