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The Greatest Show


Yellow Shoe Fiction

200 pages / 5.50 x 8.50 inches / no illustrations

ebook available

Fiction | Fiction (Short Stories)

  Paperback / 9780807144527 / March 2012

Winner of the Paterson Prize for Fiction Finalist

Fire sweeps along the wall of a circus tent while inside thousands of people enjoy a Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey matinee. Within minutes, flames consume the canvas and vast sections collapse, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.

Inspired by the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, the interconnected stories in Michael Downs’s The Greatest Show explore the aftermath of a disaster in a world of clowns, elephants, and childhood fantasies. 
In the opening story, Ania Liszak, a young Polish housemaid, steals circus tickets from her employer to take her three-year-old son, Teddy, to the matinee. The fire nearly kills both and leaves them scarred in different ways: Teddy’s mother enjoys the beautiful strangeness of the scar on her face, but the patches across Teddy’s body inspire cruel schoolmates to call him “Lizard Liszak.” Over time, his mother transforms her pain into drama, while Teddy, having no memory of that day, seeks ways to return to it.
These and other captivating characters appear throughout the book, creating a portrait of an American city and its people over five decades, raising questions about wounds and healing, memory and forgetting, and about the human capacity for kindness—with all its futility and power—in the midst of great loss.

Michael Downs, a Hartford native, is the author of House of Good Hope: A Promise for a Broken City, which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. A recipient of a literary fiction fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and is an assistant professor of English at Towson University.

Advance Praise for The Greatest Show

"The Greatest Show is a tour de force, a collection of stories that achieves so much more than the sum of its parts. Each story chips away at a shared mystery, and the answers Michael Downs finds are answers for us all, for the questions we ask about how, and why, we survive. Survive and love. This book is going to live with me for a long while, and I can't recommend it highly enough."—Tom Franklin, author of Poachers and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

"Though each story stands alone in scope and power, the larger portrait of a community bound and propelled by fate--specifically, a catastrophic circus fire--is a stellar, magical achievement. The Greatest Show is a fantastically conceived, compelling book."--Sabina Murray, author of The Caprices and Tales of the New World

"As he did in his fine nonfiction, House of Good Hope, Michael Downs has penned a heartbreaking paean to Hartford, an overlooked American city, using its circus fire as a starting point. Having begun his career at the Courant, the author is quickly staking his claim as this capital's William Kennedy."--Stewart O’Nan, author of Emily, Alone and The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

“Brilliant as individual pieces, these stories when read together are a revelation. The Greatest Show is the work of a mature, compassionate, incisive writer with a talent for discovering strange surprises at the periphery of tragedy.”—Sheri Joseph, author of Stray and Bear Me Safely Over

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