Books like Fire in the Grove play to literary rubber-neckers like me. When something big happens, whether a terrorist hijacks a plane and flies it into a building or a nightclub bursts into flame for no discernable reason, we love finding out what happened without getting grit under our fingernails or smoke in our eyes. The good thing for authors like John Esposito is that it matters not whether the event in question took place ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago. Tragedies are chockful of real-life human drama. The innocent always suffer. Fools abound. Folks bathed in ordinary become extraordinary for one brief shining moment. Firemen look great. Politicians look bad. Businessmen seem nefarious. Justice is complicated. Society learns a lesson. It happens over and over again.
Fire in the Grove doesn’t disappoint the veteran tragedy wonk. It’s well-researched and well-written. Aside from an early teaser where Esposito describes the horrific results of a fire that only took a few minutes to kill and maim hundreds of people, the book is a serious, sequential look at an event that took place over sixty years ago. The author gives us sense of the historical context. We see the Cocoanut Grove nightclub as it was in 1942 – a place where people went to eat and drink and have a good time. He introduces us to the owner and manager of the establishment. We observe the staff – bartenders, waiters, cooks – and entertainers. We get a quick rundown of the history of the Grove. We see the clientele – a famous movie star, partiers, military men out with their dates, couples celebrating their anniversaries, drinkers – people coming to enjoy themselves. Sprinkle in politics and medical controversy, and you have a quick-reading tale that will give you nightmares the next time you are in a crowded theater.
There are a few photographs of the victims stretched out on the sidewalk in front of the burning building, but the ghouls among you will be disappointed. The images are heartrending, but not gruesome. There are pictures of the people that figured in the event, schematics of the rabbit-warren layout of the establishment, and snapshots of at least one of the injured after recovery.
In the aftermath of a large fire like this, especially when there is so much loss of life, people want to understand. They want someone to be at fault. That’s easy to fix. Put the culprit away and the problem goes away. This was the tendency in 1942 just as it is today. Esposito asks the normal questions: How did this fire happen? Why were so many people trapped inside? Who was responsible? He also explores the deeper issues – things like building design, the technical reasons for the fire’s deadly progression, the various causes of death and the psychology of panic.
In the final analysis, it seems that there was plenty of blame to go around – as usual. Human beings make mistakes. We make decisions based on money. We never think that doing a favor for a friend might result in tragedy. We design to delight and charm customers. Who would dream that blocking a door with a coat rack would cause a problem? We seldom notice where the exits are when we are having fun. We like to think that we will be noble in an emergency. We can’t imagine the terror that might overtake us when we can’t breathe or see. Fire in the Grove shows us how all those things combined to cause the deaths of nearly five hundred people. It is a sobering read.
[If you are a serious historian, Fire in the Grove includes a solid index.]