Day’s wise, warmhearted debut reveals the private lives and secret yearnings of clowns, acrobats, and pinheads as they interact with the locals in a circus’s midwestern off-season home.
Herself the descendant of a ticket-taker and an elephant trainer, the author integrates family history with documentary research to create a multifaceted portrait of Lima, Indiana (stand-in for her hometown, Peru). It could be any American town filled with men stuck in dead-end jobs and women looking for more from life than another baby—except for the galvanizing annual stays of the circus folk. Immigrants, misfits, dwarves, and former slaves reinvented as African royalty, they incarnate the intoxicating possibilities of freedom and pleasure beyond the edge of town, even though their lives are scarred by loss, disappointment, and tragedy. As the narrative moves forward across the 20th century in a series of stories about interconnected characters, the Great Porter Circus shuts down, its performers and roustabouts retire, and their children become dry cleaners, railroad clerks, and bank tellers. Traces of glitter and sawdust in the air add a ghostly poignancy to the later tales of small-town restlessness. “The King and His Court,” a brilliant, bitter chronicle of Laura Hofstadter, whose dreams are stymied by an unwanted pregnancy, launches the second half, in which all the thematic strands come together. “There are basically two kinds of people in the world,” Laura tells her daughter Jenny before vanishing. “The kind who stay are town people, and the kind who leave are circus people.” Jenny becomes a modern-day circus person, an academic who moves from place to place and job to job. But when she returns for the funeral of Grandpa Ollie, a former clown, Jenny realizes, “the world is full of hometowns . . . . And just because it was hard to leave Linden Avenue in Flatbush or the Naperville city limits or Lima doesn’t mean you can’t ever go back.” The book closes on that moving note of reconciliation and understanding.
Funny and tough-minded, yet tender and touched with magic: this is a real find.