Truevine

By the title alone, this book has a lot to live up to: “Truevine Two Brothers, a Kidnapping and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.” If anyone could do it, it would be a journalist, which author Beth Macy is.

But as I made my way through, exploring the history of the circus–a topic I confess I knew hardly anything about before– I was disenchanted.

Truevine is the real story about George and Willie Muse, two albino African-Americans who, some way or another, ended up as part of a circus sideshow (read, freak show), performing for various circuses, including Ringling Brothers. It’s also the story of their mother, one Harriett Muse, who defied racial norms and held circus owners accountable to their responsibility toward her sons.

It’s not that the content was bad, Macy clearly outlines the research she did, and readers can tell it was thorough through the information presented. The issue, for me, was the presentation.

It started well enough, telling the story of the brothers’ kidnapping, as the family passed it down from generation to generation (though, by the end, Macy has found enough information to cast doubt on whether the boys were actually kidnapped, or if something else occurred). Then Macy tells of how she first met the family and how a newspaper series turned into a full-fledged book, working to uncover as much truth as could be found.

From there, nearly half the book is a history lesson on circuses, sideshows and the racial climate of the Jim Crow south. And while these things are important, and important to understand in regards to the story she is telling, for two hundred pages, or thereabouts, it’s not a story about the Muse brothers.

As I said, halfway into the book, it became the story of the Muse brothers, telling of their separation from their family (the details surrounding which are dubious, at best), and recounting, where possible, their travels and performances, ranging from ambassadors from Mars to cannibals from Ecuador.

Macy points out in her book that records pertaining specifically to the Muse brothers are difficult to find and paint an incomplete picture–which one can imagine being the case, regarding a traveling circus that hits the road every night. It isn’t until Harriett Muse gets a lawyer involved that records and documents become reliable, simply because legal records and enforcement of paychecks leave a paper trail.

Having read the book, I have no doubts Macy put it together as best she could, and it would indeed be challenging to write a book where years of the subjects’ lives are hazy, at best. And for this particular topic, it is important to understand the context. Many people would have viewed being part of a freakshow as a good thing. Some of the sideshow acts, such as individuals missing limbs, could hardly expect to earn a living any other way. And it’s important to understand the hustle involved in circus life.

But, perhaps the book could have been shorter, or in my opinion, it just needed some reorganization. The contextual information needed to be better woven into the narrative of the Muse brothers’ lives. I also would have liked to see a timeline, a quick snapshot to show, as best as can be reconstructed, where the brothers were and when events happened. I think that would have added a lot to the book. And finally, some pictures, either of the brothers, of primary documents, anything. Macy references so many people and places that some photos would have been an interesting visual addition that would help satisfy readers more fully. Macy herself had a hard time coming up with her documents, so perhaps they were not, for whatever reason, available as part of the book, in which case, I think she should have mentioned it in a little note. But, maybe that’s just me.

So my opinion overall? I’m not sure. I enjoyed the book, certainly. But, perhaps it’s just a little more history than biography. It wasn’t what I expected, but I wouldn’t necessarily discount it because of that. I guess I would just warn that it’s not as exciting and intense as the subtitle and the synopsis makes it out to be.

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