In this memoir, a woman looks back at five years of traveling and teaching kids in the circus.
Of everyone who’s ever run away to join the circus, Radcliffe—“a very proper fifty-year-old lady from academia” and former country-club member—is one of the unlikeliest. But after divorce and an unsuccessful stint as a Spanish teacher to “large classes of aspiring delinquents,” she started tutoring children in the entertainment industry and was then invited to apply for a teaching job with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Interested in new experiences, Radcliffe went for it. In her debut work, Radcliffe writes evocatively of cramped train compartments, bad smells, being too cold or too hot, and the difficulties of setting up classrooms anew in various towns. She reports on many behind-the-scenes glimpses of “the greatest show on earth”: the often troubled young men who do the heavy lifting; the performers’ routines and hierarchies; the seamy sides of many cities; and circus gossip, stories and scandals. Circus life, Radcliffe writes, is something like a village from centuries ago: Everyone knows “whose bastard the village drab had borne, who was stealing chickens, and whether the lord’s son preferred the shepherd, the shepherdess, or the sheep.” By the same token, “Circus children, on the whole, are warm, loving, and well-adjusted. These kids don’t just have one or two doting parents; they have more than three hundred.” Sometimes Radcliffe’s sympathies seem oddly placed. Writing of a cook who abandoned his family and joined the circus to avoid paying child support, she comments jauntily, “The circus won!” Hurray? She also breezily dismisses animal rights activists as “do-gooders” despite considerable evidence, including videos, of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animals being abused with bullhooks, whips and electric prods. Elsewhere, though, Radcliffe is more sensitive to the darker undercurrents beneath the circus’s bright, spangled surface. In response to a jest, one of the guys says, “Hey, I’m not on the ten most-wanted list….I joined because nobody wanted me.” As Radcliffe says, “Sometimes a joke covers up a lot of pain.”
A humorous, gossipy account of an unusual lifestyle.