Excerpt from The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The House Is on Fire

by Rachel Beanland

The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland X
The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland
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  • Published:
    Apr 2023, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kathleen Basi
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Sally Campbell's shoes are fashionable but extremely flimsy. She ordered them from Curtis Fairchild's specifically for Richmond's winter season, but now she feels like a fool for thinking she could get away with wearing them on the half-mile walk from her brother-in-law's house to the theater.

The shoes, which are made of silk and lined with linen, are as pretty as they come, but they are no match for the terrain. It's been so cold that the earth is frozen solid, which means that every bulge and divot beneath Sally's feet feels like a knife blade through the shoes' thin leather soles. "It's possible I would have been no worse off barefoot," she says to her sister-in-law Margaret when they reach the corner of H and Seventh Streets.

A fierce wind whips at the women's faces, and they lean into each other, drawing the collars of their coats tight around their necks while they wait for Archie to catch up. "We need you, dear," Margaret calls to her husband as he lumbers toward them.

Archie, amiable as ever, seems pleased to be needed.

"Be a gentleman and walk in front of us," says Margaret. Then she winks at Sally and says in a voice loud enough for Archie to hear, "We'll let him block the wind."

Archie gives them an exaggerated bow and touches the brim of his hat, but when he rounds the corner, he has to hold on to it with both hands. The wind comes from the east and spills down Richmond's main thoroughfare, taking the last of the leaves on the trees with it. Margaret and Sally fall into formation behind Archie, tucking their chins to their chests.

As they pass the capitol, Sally can hear the church bells from a few blocks away chime seven o'clock. The capitol is an imposing Palladian structure, and its plaster of Paris facade shines under a canopy of stars. In the pastures that surround the building, Sally tries to make out the shapes of grazing cows. She can hear their irate grunts, carried in the wind, and knows that, in weather such as this, they are huddled close together, too.

"Just another block or two," says Margaret, who married into the Campbell family just a few years after Sally did and has, over the past half dozen or so years, become not just a sister to Sally but a dear friend.

Margaret is such a dear friend, that she has not uttered a single complaint about venturing out in this weather. Sally knows she'd have preferred to remain at home, in front of a warm fire, but since Sally gave her hosts the tickets to tonight's performance as a gift, Margaret is doing an admirable job pretending there is nowhere else she'd rather be.

The truth, of course, is that the tickets were as much a gift to Sally as anyone else. She loves the theater—the extravagant props, the audacious costumes, the monologues that move her to tears. Back when Robert used to bring her to Richmond, they'd gone to the theater every chance they got, but in the three years since his death, she's had little reason to come to the capital at all, much less to see a play.

The theater sits at the intersection of H and Fourteenth Streets, catty-corner to the capitol and on the crest of Shockoe Hill. It is an impressive building, with a commanding view of the wharf. Beyond the wharf is the James River, which curls around Church Hill, winding its way past Rockett's Landing and all the way to Jamestown.

The old theater, which was barely more than an oversized barn, burned to the ground the year before Robert and Sally were married, and for several years the Charleston-based Placide & Green and other touring acting troupes had to perform in the old market building, local taverns, or not at all. Sally and Robert saw André at The Swan and The Taming of the Shrew at City Tavern, and while it was nearly impossible to hear the actors' lines over the din of the crowd, Sally thought the taverns-turned-theaters weren't all bad. She liked the buzzy feeling she got when she drank down a pint of cider too fast and began reciting Shakespeare in Robert's ear; on the nights she took his earlobe between her teeth and he called her his wee drunkard in his thick Scottish accent, they rarely made it through three acts.

Excerpted from The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland. Copyright © 2023 by Rachel Beanland. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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