Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Great Fire

The Great Fire

Jim Murphy
For ages 12 and up
Scholastic, 1995   ISBN: 0439203074

It had been a very hot and dry summer and no rain had fallen for some weeks. Fires had been breaking out all over the city of Chicago on a daily basis. In that year of 1871 two thirds of the buildings in the city were made of wood. In addition there were miles and miles of wooden sidewalks and even miles of pine-block streets. With the heat the wood was very dry and highly combustible. There was no doubt that Chicago was “a city ready to burn.”

On October the 7th there were several fires in the city, one of which took sixteen hours to get under control. On the 8th, a Sunday, in the West Side of Chicago, a fire broke out in the barn of the O’Leary family. What followed was a series of errors, made unwittingly, but which ended up ensuring that the fire that had such a modest beginning would grow into an enormous conflagration. Alarms were not rung, too few fire trucks were summoned, and some of the trucks were sent to the wrong part of town. By the time the fire chief was on the spot the fire was already too hot and too fierce for the fireman to put out. A strong and unremitting wind off the prairie began to spread sparks and ash all around and soon the fire was spreading at a furious rate.

With fascinating details which set the scene and which paint a horrific picture, Jim Murphy has created a book which is hard to put down. We hear the voices of many people who witnessed the fire and we also follow the fortunes of several people. There is a reporter, a man who was in Chicago visiting family, a newspaper editor, and a twelve-year-old girl. Through their eyes we see the fire up close and from many different points of view. The common theme in their accounts is that the fire moved faster and was more destructive than any of them could have thought was possible.

With the aid of maps, illustrations and old photographs Jim Murphy helps us see, and feel, what it must have been like to be in Chicago on October 8th 1871.

This is a Newbery Honor Book.