Review: The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland

In The House Is On Fire, Rachel Beanland recounts the chaotic true story of the 1811 theater fire in Richmond, VA as told from four perspectives. There is Jack, a stage hand who witnesses the inciting event and grapples with doing the right thing. Cecily, an enslaved woman who takes her freedom into her own hands. Gilbert, an enslaved man who becomes a hero during the rescue effort. And Sally, the well-off widow who becomes an unlikely leader during the chaos of evacuation and recovery.

These four perspectives expertly illustrate the socioeconomic, gender, and racial divides of society in that specific time and place. These perspectives further drive those invisible lines home in terms of each person’s corresponding physical placement in the theater at the time of the fire.

Beanland’s depiction of the actual fire and the brutal rush for evacuation are heart-pounding, terrifying, and raw. She does not shy away from brutal, disturbing descriptions of the fire and its fall out, which makes the event all the more immediate and real for the reader. I even had a few vivid dreams clearly taken from the descriptions in this book.

Each of the four protagonists ultimately learn something new about themselves, aspects of society and individuals so hidden and buried that without the fire, they may not have questioned them at all. The fire, like disease, acts as an objective and great neutralizer, yet the aftermath gives rise to exploitation and easy scapegoating as is unfortunately the case with great tragedies in the public eye.

The House Is On Fire is not just a book about a large-scale fire, but rather about social issues that become magnified and questioned during crisis and tragedy in a way that resonates today as much as it did in 1811.

The House Is On Fire will be released April 4, 2023