The Circus in Winter
by Cathy Day
I love reading books set in my home state, Indiana, but they are few and far between. So I was excited to discover this book, the story of a circus whose home base was in Indiana. The whole book is about the circus, but each chapter features a different star, a different player in the overall company of characters. It begins with the tale of the circus’ owner in 1884 and then winds through the decades.
I’ve seen it compared to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and that description is spot on. Both books breakdown small-town life and the dark secrets that lie in everyone's past. There are sweet moments, but overall it's about the heartbreak inherent in the human condition.
Day draws each character beautifully and you're invested in their story from the first pages. Each person is fragile despite their sometimes tough exteriors. Wallace Porter is a resident of Lima, Ind. and buys the circus from a man named Hollenbach. Porter’s own story is so tragic that it sets the tone for the rest of the book.
There’s Jennie Dixianna, who was raised in the Alabama bayou and now performs the “spin of death,” wearing her perpetually bloody wrist as a proud talisman of her both talent and stubbornness. Then we meet the Boela tribe, which includes generations of members. It starts with Bascomb and Pearly, but continues with their son Gordon, his daughter Verna, and her son Chicky who is a dwarf. Even characters that aren’t human, like Caesar the elephant, find a way to pull you in.
There are stories set within the circus and others that feature the lives affected by it. There’s the lonely wife of its manager who fills her home with murals of the circus. One family moves to Peru years after the circus has closed, but vestiges of its glamour still seep into their lives. The circus also barely survived a huge flood in 1913, which wiped out many of its performers and animals.
I loved how all the stories are tied together. The son of the elephant keeper lived in the Colonel’s house, later his daughter Laura is featured in her own story. Because the time period in which many of the stories take place, there is an inevitable tone of racism. The way African-Americans are treated throughout the book breaks your heart. They could be a featured act in the circus just by being black. That made them a wild curiosity that might have come from the “jungle.”
The author grew up in Peru, Ind. which was the home of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. It wintered there and many of her family members were involved in it. I was curious how much of the book was inspired or based on true story she might have heard growing up.
BOTTOM LINE: Hauntingly beautiful stories about loneliness in so many different forms. The circus may be the stage for these particular stories, but their resonance and relatability reaches across the years.
"The world is made up of hometowns. It's just as hard to leave a block in Brooklyn or a suburb of Chicago as it is to leave a small town in Indiana."
“This is why they call it the heartland. In the summer, the fields on either side of Mrs. Colonel’s house glowed a brilliant green, rippling in the wind. The air stretched above like miles of blue canvas, and Mrs. Colonel pictured a center pole rising up from Indianapolis’s Monument Circle to hold up the endless sky.”