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One Book, Two Reviews

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

"There is a book for every reader and a reader for every book." This quote by S. R. Ranganathan is something every library science student probably hears at some point in their training.

One of the things I love about books is how two different people can read the same book, with each having a totally different experience one from the other, and each walking away from the book with a different opinion of what they've read. It's a matter of perspective. Each person has his or her own unique background, personality, and opinions that he or she brings to the words on the page.

Vicki Rock and I each received an e-galley of the book "The House is On Fire" by Rachel Beanland. I posted her review on our website today, on the page with her other reviews. (She had three new reviews today!) I posted my review on It's interesting to see that we each had different reactions to the book.

Vicki's review:

Richmond, Virginia 1811. It’s the height of the winter social season. The General Assembly is in session, and many of Virginia’s gentleman planters, along with their wives and children, have made the journey to the capital.

At the city’s only theater, the Placide & Green Company puts on two plays a night to meet the demand.

On the night after Christmas, the theater is packed with more than 600 people. In the third-floor boxes, sits newly widowed Sally Henry Campbell, the daughter of Patrick Henry. She is glad for the opportunity to relive the happy times she shared with her husband, Robert. She is there with her brother-in-law, Archie Campbell, and his wife, Margaret.

One floor away, in the colored gallery, Cecily Patterson gets a four-hour reprieve from a life that has recently gone from bad to worse.

Backstage, young stagehand Jack Gibson hopes that, if he can impress the theater’s managers, he’ll be offered a permanent job with the company. And on the other side of town, blacksmith Gilbert Hunt dreams of one day being able to bring his wife to the theater, but he’ll have to buy her freedom first.

When the theater goes up in flames in the middle of the performance, Sally, Cecily, Jack, and Gilbert make a series of split-second decisions that will not only affect their own lives but those of others. And in the days following the fire, as news of the disaster spreads across the United States, the paths of these four people will become intertwined.

This is based on the true story of Richmond’s theater fire. While the writing is good, the characters are one-dimensional, especially the bad ones, and it’s heavy on white male scorn. The book also depicts multiple rapes. Fans of historical novels may enjoy “The House is on Fire.”

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

My review was a little different:

A night at the theater turns deadly as the packed house catches fire, and panicked theater-goers rush to exit a structure which is rapidly becoming an inferno. Among those in the building as it catches fire: Sally Henry Campbell, daughter of patriot Patrick Henry; a young slave named Cecily and her mistress, Maria; and a young stagehand and aspiring actor named Jack.

The story is told in alternating chapters from the point of view of Sally, Cecily, Gilbert (Cecily's uncle, who is not in the theater when it catches fire, but plays a role in the rescue) and Jack.

The fire and its aftermath impact the lives of these individuals in different ways. The tragedy allows for exploration of the complex dynamics of relationships between owners and enslaved people; between men and women; between the "upper crust" of society and those deemed "lower class."

I had never heard of the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811, but at the time, it was the deadliest disaster in our young nation's history. As the author brings the characters onto the scene, we are shown the labyrinthine and crowded nature of the theater, and can see the disaster in the making. The aftermath is filled with conflict, as well as some righteous anger at those who escaped at others' expense.

The author's note at the end is important reading, as it gives the reader a clearer understanding of what aspects of the book are historical fact, and in what areas the author was relying on imagination based on the historic events.

I was slow to get into the story, but as I approached the end, I found myself quite invested in the outcome.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

Why is my review different? Part of it is my interest in particular subjects.

  • It might sound ghoulish, but I read a lot about disasters. I'm interested in how people respond to such situations. It tends to bring out the best in some people, and the worst in others. I'm also interested in how disasters influence future safety practices as people try to understand what happened and avoid it happening again. Disaster stories also help with perspective -- no matter how badly my day is going, it's really not that bad. I read a lot of disaster books during the lockdown days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • I'm interested in the interactions of people from different societal groups and the roles, throughout history, of women, people of color, and the poor.

  • I absolutely love history. That's why the author's note at the end was so important to me.

The differing reaction to the same book by different people is one of the reasons why there are so many different books! It's why it's important to have a variety of materials in a library because there are a variety of people, each with his or her unique viewpoint. It's also why the opinions that some people have of a book shouldn't be the deciding factor in whether other people are able to read it. It's why I take very seriously my role in developing the library collection and try very hard to offer a wide variety of viewpoints. It's also why, if we don't have a particular book that someone wants to read, I'm very eager to try to get a copy from another library.

It's also why libraries have a variety of tools to help readers locate books they'll enjoy from among the thousands of titles we have available. (I wrote about that in a previous blog post last fall.) If you're having trouble finding a book you like, be sure to explore those tools, or just talk to us about what you're trying to find.

Happy reading, everyone!

The Library Lady


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