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“But it was hard to have hope when all Oscar could see in any direction was smoldering ruins. Hundreds of people were dead, and four miles of the city had burned to the ground.” –The Great Chicago Fire, 1891

I Survived the Great Chicago Fire, 1891

I Survived

by  Lauren Tarshis 
AR Test, Good for Reluctant Readers

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Oscar Starling never wanted to come to Chicago. But then Oscar finds himself not just in the heart of the big city, but in the middle of a terrible fire! No one knows how it began, but one thing is clear: Chicago is a giant powder keg about to explode.

An army of firemen is trying to help, but this fire is a ferocious beast that wants to devour everything in its path – including Oscar! Will Oscar survive one of the most famous and devastating fires in history?

While the story’s focus is the Great Chicago Fire, Oscar is also dealing with his father’s death and his mother’s new marriage. Even though Oscar’s father has died, Oscar thinks about his father often, which helps him be brave during the fire. Oscar’s father gives the story added depth and interest. Because of his father’s stories, Oscar is able to help two parentless kids and stand up to a street gang leader.

The Great Chicago Fire, 1891 jumps straight into the action, which continues throughout the story. The compelling story focuses on the fire, but also includes information about homeless street children. The two subplots are expertly woven together to create an interesting, suspenseful story that readers will devour. Full of surprising twists and unexpected danger, The Great Chicago Fire, 1891 brings history to life.

The story is told from Oscar’s point of view, which allows the reader to understand the danger and confusion associated with being surrounded by the fire. One of the best aspects of the story is Oscar’s changing opinion of a street kid named Jennie. When Jennie helps a gang of boys steal from Oscar, he thinks she is a terrible criminal. But his opinion of Jennie changes when he learns about her circumstances. In the end, the two kids work together to survive the fire.

The story is accessible to all readers because Tarshis uses short paragraphs and simple sentences. Realistic black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the story and will help readers visualize the events. While the story weaves interesting facts throughout, the book ends with more facts about the Chicago fire. The historical information about the cause of the fire would be an excellent opportunity for parents to discuss journalists reporting “fake news” and how gossip can “harden into established fact.”

Readers who enjoy history and fast action stories will enjoy The Great Chicago Fire, 1891. If you’re looking for more historical fiction, Survival Tails by Katrina Charman takes a look at historical events from an animal’s point of view. Both series use engaging stories to teach about history.

Sexual Content

  • None


  • Oscar thinks back to when his papa was a sheriff. “Papa heard that Earless Kildair was a killer. And sure enough, by morning the town’s bank had been robbed, and one of Papa’s friends was sprawled out dead in the street.”
  • Oscar’s father followed Earless to Chicago. “He finally found him in a stinking tavern near the river. Papa pulled out his gun, ready to arrest him. But Earless was too quick. He jumped behind the bar and started shooting. . . A bullet whizzed just past Papa’s head. . . The bullet hit Papa in the chest.” His father survives, but later dies.
  • Oscar gets trapped in Chicago during the fire. Burning embers “were all around him, attacking like a swarm of fiery bees. They seared his scalp, burned through the wool of his clothes, scorched his lips. Pain lashed him, and the sickening smell of his burning hair made him gag.” Oscar is injured, but otherwise okay.
  • Oscar goes into a burning house to help two kids escape. “Oscar felt as though he were being attacked by a wild animal. It grabbed him, clawed at him, and spun him around.” Oscar thinks he will not be able to escape, but “then he felt a hand on his arm, pulling him up.”
  • Otis, a gang member, tells Oscar’s friend that she can’t quit the gang. “And before he realized what he was doing, he sprang forward and gave Otis a hard push in the chest.” Otis smacks Oscar and “Oscar fell to the ground, the flash of pain in his head burning brighter than the blazing sky.”
  • As people are fleeing, they cross a bridge. The bridge catches fire and “next came splashes, and Oscar refused to think about what—or who—was falling off the bridge and into the river.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None


  • None


  • None

Spiritual Content

  • A child tells Oscar, “My mama got sick. She is in heaven.” Oscar tells the boy, “my papa’s in heaven too.”
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“But it was hard to have hope when all Oscar could see in any direction was smoldering ruins. Hundreds of people were dead, and four miles of the city had burned to the ground.” –The Great Chicago Fire, 1891

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