The Great Fire

Book review by
Tanya Smith, Common Sense Media
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Spellbinding account of disaster.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Positive Messages

Immigrants are blamed for the fire and persecuted.


An out-of-control fire destroys a significant part of a city and kills scores of people. Family members and friends are separated from each other during the confusion following the outbreak of the fire.

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What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this details the tragic Great Fire of Chicago, which killed scores of people. The fire itself is made a powerful character in this exciting account.

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What's the story?

This spellbinding account of disaster--traditionally attributed to Mrs. O'Leary's hapless cow, but actually of unknown origin, chronicles the ensuing chaos in vivid detail through eyewitness accounts. Little Claire Innes's keen account of being temporarily separated from her family invigorates the narrative.


Is it any good?

Anecdotes enliven this fact-based narrative chronicling the 1871 blaze that ate up the wooden streets, sidewalks, and structures of Chicago and left most of the city in ruins. Moving along briskly as it weaves eyewitness recollections with solid research, this is a surprisingly quick and enjoyable read. Much of the enjoyment springs from the vivid recollections of eyewitnesses, including 12-year-old Claire Innes, who got lost in the chaos. Alone, Claire wandered the chaotic city, and she later described the sad sights she encountered: "Several men gathered around a charred lump, and each man shaking his head sadly."

The visuals, while authentic, are somewhat disappointing. Dating from the time of the fire, the sepia-toned photographs and drawings are historically compelling but may seem underwhelming to kids. The exception is a recurring simple grid map that effectively marks the fire's march across the city.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the book's central tragedy. Could a fire like this happen today? What kind of techniques are used to keep fires from spreading so freely?

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