SPANGLE by Gary Jennings
Kirkus Star

SPANGLE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

From the always sharp-eyed historical novelist Jennings, a 700+-page, exhaustively researched re-creation of 19th-century circus life--but without the power and magic that informed Aztec (1980) and The Journeyer (1984). As the Civil War limps to a close, Confederate Colonel Zachary Edge and his trusty Sergeant Obie Yount ride wearily away from Appomattox, heading back home to the Blue Ridge Mountains and uncertain employment. To Edge's amazement, an elephant nearly stumbles over their camp one night--and he and Yount are introduced to a rundown traveling circus with one mangy lion, a fortuneteller, a not-so-tiny midget, and an extremely ambitious circus director: an urban Alsatian named Florian who wants to work his way back to Europe (the real home of circuses) and fame. The two rebels cast in their lots (Edge as a trick shooter, Yount performing feats of strength) and tag along up through the States to Baltimore, and then across the Atlantic to Italy. There, circus life really begins. Edge meets and falls in love with an English tightrope walker named Autumn Auburn; Florian's circus, gaining in wonderful acts and popularity, travels up the boot to Austria, then Hungary, finally to the splendidly described Russia of Tsar Alexander, where peasant girls are frozen alive to make buffet centerpieces. All is not grand success, however: an unstable Hungarian lesbian named Paprika viciously disrupts lives before taking a swan dive from the high wire; a flame-swallower gruesomely ends his life after his wife's unfaithfulness; and Edge's beloved Autumn kills herself after contracting a wasting disease. But the circus goes on; it ends up in besieged Paris during the brutal winter of the Franco-Persian War, and survives: when Florian dies of a stroke, Edge, now a full-fledged circus man, takes the helm. Ever didactic, Jennings gives the reader page after page of fascinating 19th-century circus arcana. But unlike Aztec and The Journeyer (whose first-person narrations gave a powerful coming-of-age feel), Spangle lacks a strong viewpoint character through which to filter the seemingly endless historical data (Edge is almost without personality). Therefore: a disappointment to Jennings fans, although hats off for a gargantuan effort.

Pub Date: Nov. 10th, 1987
ISBN: 156849727X
Publisher: Atheneum