Monday, January 8, 2018

Book Review: The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day

[post 436]
Bottom Line: I wouldn't review this book if I didn't like it. I liked it a lot. I think you will too.

Format: Fiction. Connected short stories, but reads like a novel that jumps around in time, which most novels do these days anyway.

Author:  Cathy Day grew up in Peru, Indiana, winter home of several circuses, notably Hagenbeck-Wallace, fictionalized here as the Great Porter Circus. Peru bills itself as "the circus capital of the world" and since 1960 has hosted the Peru Amateur Circus. Day's great-great-uncle was an elephant trainer whose death at the hands (or trunk) of his star pachyderm is a pivotal event in the book. Day was never a circus performer, but was always closely associated with them. She teaches creative writing at the university level.

Storyline: The lives of circus people and their extended families when away from the circus, thus the title. It spans a century but everything connects, which is sort of the point of the book.

Themes:  Being content to stay in one place vs. seeing life as an adventure. The struggle just to survive.The search for happiness. How the stories we tell about our own lives and where we came from may or may not be totally true, but shape us nonetheless.

Portrayal of the Circus:  Very sympathetic but not that much detail on the acts, and less so on the training that went into them.

Clown Stuff:  Not much, but there's this:  "Their act was pretty standard. Big guy (Jo-Jo) terrorizes Little Guy (Mr. Ollie). Tables turn. Little guy gets revenge. Laughter. They'd done it hundreds of times, but that night they were drunker than usual, so drunk that Jo-Jo forgot to put on his wooden wig. When Mr. Ollie struck Jo-Jo's head with the hatchet, he felt not the familiar stick into the wooden wig, but rather a sickening give. Jo-Jo fell into the sawdust. Laughter! Clowns emerged with a stretcher to carry Jo-Jo away, but they'd grabbed a prop stretcher by mistake —they lifted the poles, leaving him on the ground. Laughter! The spotlight followed Mr. Ollie as he ran across the center ring crying, tripping on his big, floppy shoes. Laughter! Applause!"

Not so sure I believe the stretcher part. Anyway, Ollie clowns for several years more but then gives it up to open the Clown Alley Dry Cleaners in Peru, marries unhappily, and lives to see 100.

Quotes: "My mother told me there are basically two kinds of people in the world: town people and circus people. The kind who stay are town people and the kind who leave are circus people."
"As much as I love the Cumberland Valley at twilight, I probably won't live there forever, and this doesn't really scare me. That's how I know I'm circus people.”

Pros:  Strong characters, compelling narrative, unique perspective. In other words, she's a damn good writer.

Cons: You might find the book depressing. You won't find much in the way of happy characters here. I just re-read Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool and then his recent sequel, Everybody's Fool. He deals with similar characters, but most of them display more of a sense of humor, as does Russo. That didn't bother me here, but just so you know...

Another Reviewer: "If Alice Munro and Sherwood Anderson had a child, and that child was given up for adoption and subsequently raised by Ricky Jay, the child's name would be The Circus in Winter, and it would be an exquisite and profound collection of short stories." —Derek, on Goodreads

The Author's Blog:

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