It’s been a long time since I thoroughly enjoyed a book with no complaints. Hannah Barnaby’s Wonder Show recently gave me that pleasure. Here are a few discriptors that might grab your attention: Gypsy, Sideshow, Circus, Storytelling, Family, Self-Discovery, Abandonment, Mystery, Death, Friendship. Are you listening? Gather ’round.
Wonder Show is set in 1939 in America’s midwest. It begins with Portia Remini’s life as a child in a gypsy tribe, where a tradition of storytelling is not only in her blood, but in the very air around her. When the tribe falls upon hard times and must disband, Portia finds herself a resident of McGreavy’s Home for Wayward Girls, a miserable, slavish establishment. It doesn’t take long for Portia to decide she needs to escape and find her father, who had left her with the promise of coming back for her one day. Peddling madly on a stolen, red bike she catches up with a traveling circus, the perfect cover for a runaway. It is in this manner that Portia Remini joins the Wonder Show:
“‘This is no ordinary carnival, darling. You’ve signed on with Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show.’
Portia still felt itchy and hot. ‘Sounds fine to me.’
Violet smirked. ‘Then clearly you’ve never been through the ten-in-one.’ She cupped her hands around her mouth and hollered. ‘Step right up! Behold the terrible wonders of nature! The Fattest Woman in the World! The Lobster Boy! The Dreaded Albinos of Darkest Africa!’…Violet stood up and stepped close so her mouth was almost touching Portia’s ear. ‘Welcome to the freak show, little girl.'” (pages 88-9)
Though Portia’s vivid imagination and propensity for storytelling help her land a job with the sideshow, life on the road is not as easy as she expected. She must struggle with external and internal forces, as she figures out what her own story is to be. Reminiscent of Lyra Belacqua (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) in her independence and impetuous nature, Portia also cares fiercely for those close to her. As such, she is an exciting and admirable heroine, who will be remembered beyond the final page of the novel.
Aside from the story itself, what I loved about Wonder Show is the author’s care for her subject. It is clear that Hannah Barnaby has a genuine love of circus life and history, including that of the traveling sideshow, and has conducted solid research to give her narrative a rich level of detail and authenticity. Hers is not a story of the circus in its hayday, but rather one when it and the sideshow are in decline. It still has the veneer of the spectacular, but we, as readers, are privvy to the hard realities of life behind the scenes. Quick shifts in narration occur while Portia is with the Wonder Show, offering short histories and greater understanding of the “freaks” and “normals” who work the show. I saw them as a sort of narrative cabinet card designed to humanize their subjects.
Knife Throwers via sideshowfreaks.files.wordpress.com; Isaac Sprague, the Original Living Skeleton via thehumannmarvels.com; Eli Bowen, The Wonderful Man & Family via dcphotoartist.com
Barnaby is careful not to let her story lose momentum in its unusual setting. Tension and action progress nicely as Portia plots her escape and launches the search for her father. There is quirk within this novel, but it is not self serving. I kept thinking back to the latest Mysterious Benedict Society (see my review here), which also followed the formula of a child living in a cruel orphanage who has a mystery to solve and a cast of quirky characters to help with the job. However, in Stewart’s novel these elements overshadow the narrative and act as surrogates for the story’s heart; Barnaby steers clear of these pitfalls and gives readers a strong story and layered character whose tale is enhanced by the strangeness of her surroundings, not defined by them. It is hard to believe this is Barnaby’s first novel. She writes with a grace that many experienced authors have yet to achieve and is a natural storyteller in her own right.
Despite being a William C. Morris Award finalist and making many “best of” lists, I feel that Wonder Show still managed to fly under the radar and escape many people’s notice. I know I missed it until its beautiful cover grabbed my attention at ALA, and I am so glad it did.
Technically classed as young adult fiction, this book could easily be enjoyed by middle school readers. Be on the lookout for its Oct. 2 paperback release and for future works by Hannah Barnaby. She is most definitely a name to know.
I must admit that I am predisposed to like anything involving the circus. I find it fascinating! If you read Wonder Show and find yourself wanting more, see if your library has a copy of Taschen’s The Circus. 1870s-1950s. It is a wonder in itself. Roughly the size of my torso, this hefty book is filled with old show posters (both circus and sideshow), rare photographs, and circus history. It is sure to leave you dazzled.