Fourteen-year-old Portia joins a circus freak show looking for the father who abandoned her, but she finds much more.
Portia’s odyssey takes place in a gothic, Depression-era Midwest. Her idyllic youth, surrounded by the stories of her extended family, ends when her widowed father leaves her with her stoic, thoroughly practical Aunt Sophia—who then turns her over to the distinctly un-homelike McGreavey Home for Wayward Girls, ruled by the sinister Mister. After her only friend commits suicide—an act Portia feels responsible for—Portia steals Mister’s bicycle and runs away to the circus, where she hopes (with no real basis) to find her father. Her way with words wins her a place pitching the ballyhoo to the rubes who visit the titular Wonder Show. The languid, sensuous third-person account is periodically punctuated by the voices of Portia and the members of the Wonder Show, giving readers poignant insight into this fragile found family. The themes that delicately thread their way through the novel—of the power of story, of family and friendship, of seeking and finding—weave themselves together into a compelling depiction of Portia’s very conscious act of self-definition: She can be, as her mentor in the ballyhoo says, whoever she wants to be.
Infused with nostalgia and affection, this celebration of the deliberately constructed self will hold readers in its spell from beginning to end. (Historical fiction. 13 & up)