When it comes to playing with fire, sideshow alumna Tessa Fontaine says fire-eating has nothing on writing a memoir.
“Fire-eating is ultimately within my control,” says the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts. “I can be unafraid. I can take an actual element of the earth and master it in some way, or have a relationship with it....A memoir is way more frightening.”
That may be because her memoir exposes far more than she originally intended. The Electric Woman began—and begins—as an immersive journalistic account of Fontaine’s five-month tenure as a bally girl, a fire-eating, snake-charming, escape-artist magician in sequined short-shorts, with America’s famous last traveling sideshow, World of Wonders.
“On my seventh day with the World of Wonders crew,” she writes, “all my fellow performers’ eyes are on me, the new snake charmer, to see what I do with this beastie around my neck. I will be bold. I touch the snake’s body with my hand. My eyes crest with tears. My chest heaves. I can hardly breathe. I’m trying to tell myself not to be scared, that there is no reason to think the snake might hurt me, that people look far greater terror in the face every day, people who are even at this minute standing very close to me.”
But two-and-a-half years earlier, a great terror befell Fontaine’s family: Her mother suffered a massive, debilitating hemorrhagic stroke. Her stepfather, Davy, became his wife’s primary caregiver.
“When I started writing the book,” Fontaine says, “it was a shock to me how infected it was—and my [sideshow] experience was, and my ideas of fear and bravery were—by what was happening with my parents. At first I was resistant to sharing their story, but I began to understand the parallels, in terms of what it means to take big risks, live boldly, and decide to seek adventure.”
By the time Fontaine joined the sideshow, her stepfather was packing wheelchairs, medications, and emergency provisions so he and his wife could fulfill their lifelong dream: a trip to Italy.
“I want to be as brave as they are,” she writes, “and so, taking a breath and channeling my stage persona, I tell them I’m proud of what they’re doing. The stage performer can be delighted for the adventures they may find. She can be craven and strong. She loves her family and always has told them so. She is not the daughter researching the repatriation of remains.”
The conjoined narratives of her parents’ high-risk trip and Fontaine’s cross-country sideshow journey make The Electric Woman a bold meditation on bravery that’s tender, terrifying, illuminating, and inspiring.
“I had this idea growing up and in my early twenties,” she says. “There were some people in the world that were brave and fearless and could do things, and that there were those of us—me—who couldn’t. So, on one level, the book is about learning that fear doesn’t have to hold you back from doing something you love. It’s just a matter of pushing through despite the fear.
“If this book could encourage a few people to do the thing they’ve always wanted to do—,” she says, “to take a step toward doing something big, something wild—then I will die a very happy woman.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.