Carl Smith, an English professor at Northwestern University, dives into this familiar material, and though Chicago’s Great Fire doesn’t exactly break new ground, it serves as a wonderfully thoughtful and concise retelling of the tragedy and its aftermath ... But Chicago’s Great Fire goes beyond the disaster and its cause to recount the remarkable way the city sprang back.
The history of events can and does make for entertaining reading, especially when there is a dispute about what the events in question actually were. Chicago's Great Fire is on top of this, localizing the start of the fire in the O’Leary barn, but absolving Mrs. O’Leary and her cow of any responsibility for setting it ... But the history of ideas is often more fascinating, and it is here where Smith finds his best expression ... Chicago's Great Fire is an exemplary historical retelling of an event that still looms large in the American imagination, and an exploration of how the response to it was shaped by the ideas and ideals of the time. It manages the difficult balance between these two modes expertly, with an eye towards both the interesting anecdotal narrative and the greater historical significance.
It is, simply put, the best book ever written about the fire, a work of deep scholarship by Carl Smith that reads with the forceful narrative of a fine novel. It puts the fire and its aftermath in historical, political and social context. It’s a revelatory pleasure to read.