By 1900, there were 100 traveling circuses in the United States. The purveyors of the nation’s first mass entertainment, they moved in trains of 40 to 50 cars that carried elephants, tigers, huge canvas tents, scores of laborers, trapeze artists, lion tamers and freaks — a term then used for people whose appearance or attributes did not conform to the norm.
As recently as the late 1950s, they could be viewed — for a price — in sideshows on the midway of the Minnesota State Fair.
Sideshow agents were always on the lookout for someone or something more bizarre to create more ballyhoo, and in the early years of the 20th century, one such white man named Candy came across two albino black boys in a Virginia tobacco field.
He spirited them away to become Eko and Iko, the golden-dreadlocked Ambassadors From Mars who eventually performed for the King of England — or so the story goes.
When Beth Macy was a young feature writer at the Roanoke Times in 1989, she heard about the alleged kidnapping of George and Willie Muse and the legendary efforts of their mother, Harriet Muse, to rescue them.
Macy spent the next decade trying to convince their great-great-niece to allow her to tell at least some of the brothers’ story, which she finally co-wrote as a series for the paper. But it would take her 25 years altogether to win enough trust from Muse family members to dig more deeply. The result is the voluminous “Truevine.”
Sometimes, shorter — or tighter, as an editor might say — is better than longer, even in long-form, the latest iteration of creative nonfiction, the form often embraced by journalists who take what they hope is a significant event and tease it out into a more complex narrative.
There are undoubtedly many events that merit greater scrutiny and context, but the pitfalls — and rabbit holes — along the way are many. Macy sets up, then follows, so many leads, hints, trails and issues that the reader longs for a timeline and a list of characters, relatives, circus owners and sideshow agents just to keep things straight.
While it was clearly no picnic, Macy portrays life in a circus sideshow as a community experience that could provide emotional support, protection — and a living — to those who might otherwise have been ostracized or locked away.
And from Macy’s heart-wrenching description of life in general for African-Americans in rural Virginia in the Jim Crow South, the reader may wonder whether George and Willie were perhaps better off as Iko and Eko.
Susan Linnee is a Minneapolis-based journalist who reported for the Associated Press for 25 years from North and South America, Europe and East and West Africa.