Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Richmond Theater Fire Book Talk Enlightens Past on Early American Tragedy

Meredith Baker and Rachel Beanland discuss the Richmond Theater Fire and sign books at William & Mary (WYDaily/Jillian Appel)

WILLIAMSBURG — William & Mary hosted a Book Talk on Sept. 28 with authors Meredith Baker (M.A. ’07) and Rachel Beanland to discuss the history and complex nature of the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811.

Historic accounts explain that on the night of Dec. 26, 1811, more than 600 Richmond residents, including many of the city’s wealthy elites and prominent politicians, attended the Richmond Theater to watch two plays. During the night, the brick theater was set ablaze, resulting in the death of 70 people, including the newly elected governor of Virginia. At the time, it was the deadliest urban disaster in American history.

Baker studied American History and Museum Studies at the College of William and Mary. It was there that she discovered the histories of the Richmond Theater Fire that would inspire her graduate thesis, as well as her non-fiction work, “The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America’s First Great Disaster.” Her debut also won the 2012 Jules and Frances F. Landry Award and the 2012 Phi Alpha Theta Best First Book Award. 

Beanland is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. She lives with her husband and three children in Richmond. She’s written two novels, “Florence Adler Swims Forever” and her newest novel published this year, “The House is on Fire.”

She started work on “The House is on Fire” in the wake of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The historical fiction novel follows four characters whose lives are irrevocably altered after the fire.

The novel has received “GMA Buzz Pick” notice by Good Morning America, an April 2023 Indie Next pick by the American Booksellers Association, was named one of the Washington Post’s most anticipated books of April, and was selected as one of 12 Books to Add to Your Reading List for April by E! News.

The talk was moderated by William & Mary Creative Writing Assistant Professor Brian Castleberry, who questioned both authors regarding their research and their writing processes.

During the talk, it was noted that Beanland had been scheduled to headline a talk about her novel on Aug. 14 at a luncheon at Mandel JCC in Palm Beach, Florida. However, due to the subject matter of her novel and its depiction of slavery, the invite was rescinded.

“When I set out to write this novel it wasn’t like I necessarily set out to write a novel about slavery, I set out to write a novel about the Richmond Theater Fire,” Beanland said about the experience. “But the reality is that you can’t write a book set in 1811 set in Virginia without addressing slavery.”

“In this particular case with this novel, in Richmond in 1811 was almost fifty-fifty, white and black,” she continued. “The theater itself had white and black audience members. One step further on the list of the dead there are white and black victims. So for me, it felt like it would have been unconscionable to include a story that didn’t have the point of view of black characters as well as white characters. I felt like I was really writing a community narrative, and so I needed to include the whole community.”

Beanland noted that the organization felt comfortable telling her about the revoked invitation, citing the current political climate in Florida as the key deciding factor.

“I think had I not been a white writer ,I would have never got an explanation for why I was being disinvited, and perhaps I never would have been invited in the first place,” Beanland added. “But that was the primary reason I felt I had to go forward with the story and share it with people, because I felt like I owed it to writers of color.”

According to NBC News, 300 book titles were removed from Flordia public schools last year. The list included several winners of prestigious book awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, and titles such as Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” The article further notes that the American Library Association’s latest book censorship report found that 2022 had the highest number of attempted book bans since the organization began tracking such attempts in 2001. 

After the guided Q&A by Castleberry, the floor was open to the audience to ask questions, after which a book signing and reception allowed those in attendence to mingle and meet the authors.

For more information about the authors and their books, please visit Meredith Baker’s and Rachel Beanland’s official websites.

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