I think this is the first time that we are sharing an ‘adult’ book for Nonfiction Monday – it brings me great pleasure to share with you one of my great reads for 2011: Cathy Day’s The Circus in Winter. Perfect for our Carnivale theme this January-February.
This week’s Nonfiction Monday round-up post could be seen in The Swimmer Writer.
Stories within Stories. I rarely read collections of short stories, but this book was an exception – primarily because the narratives are complexly interwoven together – one would only be able to unravel the intricacies as one gets lost within the carnivale world. Similar to The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan and Peter Sis, this book was inspired by real people and real places – with Peru Indiana being the winter quarters of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, the author’s birth place.
The book opens with Wallace Porter – who used to be the owner of the largest livery stable in Northern Indiana and ended up becoming a circus man. Over and beyond that, it speaks of the promise of a bright great love (between Wallace and Irene) eventually ending in death, defilement, and unrelenting sorrow. And this is just the first chapter. This was one of the stories that spoke to me – a haunting sadness that never lets up.
Irene’s laugh was brittle. Turning her head from the window, she said “I married you because I wanted to live differently. I wanted my life to be an adventure, but you wanted me to live as I was accustomed.” She spat the last word from her mouth.
Porter felt his failure sitting like a gargoyle on his heart. (p. 13)
Instead of burying myself in the details of the stories, I would choose to just pick out snippets and characters that whispered to me – those which provided me with a richly-textured narrative of what ‘circus days’ are like – without the trite three-ringed showmanship. There is an artful way through which Cathy Day communicated this authenticity that goes beyond the-glittering-tinseltown-elephant-scenes that readers are accustomed to.
Jennie Dixianna and Mrs. Colonel Ford. Jenny is your quintessential Woman with her guile, wiles, and geisha ways that make you feel you are in control when in truth you aren’t. Despite her calculating ways borne out of her incisive eye that peers into one’s being (seeking out their vulnerabilities, pain, and quiet spaces) – she is clearly brittle and broken, her wounds festering, refusing to heal. Here is a short extract from the book that paints a picture of Jennie Dixianna.
… the night of the card game, Jennie discovered that Wallace Porter could not be won the usual way. He’d seen through her simpering and believed he’d found her truest self, but Jennie was layered like an onion, skin over skin over naught. With a flick of her festering wrist, she could be any woman at all: mother or shrew, whore or lady, sister or siren. She knew what sort of woman Wallace Porter desired. He wanted a ghost. It was no trouble, really. She’d played spirit made flesh before. (p. 30)
It would be good to juxtapose the foxy yet wounded Jennie Dixianna with the aging, near-desperate, and hopelessly sad Mrs. Colonel Ford with her secret longings. Enamored with Jeremy’s soft hands and artist’s eye, she convinced her husband to have this young artist ‘decorate’ their entire home with gigantic murals of the circus people – only to have her heart inevitably broken in the end. I love this quote from the book, it reminds me of what I miss in adult literature – these sudden glimpses of insight that provide strikingly vivid shades of truth as captured in time:
No woman sets out to make a fool of herself, but it still happens. All the time. A girl marries but forgets why. She wants to remember, but her husband has forgotten as well. They grow apart. A new man appears. Suddenly, she remembers love; it is a bird inside her heart that flies out the top of her head. Then, she remembers lust; it is a bird inside her womb that flies out between her legs. Her need for this new man makes her do foolish things, and the man knows this. He isn’t worthy of her loyalty, her love. He is weak, lured away by money and a scheming temptress. (p. 96)
Finding Home among the Gypsies and the Circus People. I felt drawn to this book, not so much because of magic, but because of its unusual capacity to pin down fleeting images of truth and the transient gypsy-like quality of what it means to establish roots and have your heart move from place to place – packaged in glittering lights, leotards, and fire-eating acrobats (oh did I forget the elephants, there should always be elephants). I feel that essentially I am ‘circus people’ too – thus my penchant for things dark, creepy, strange yet real. While the next few lines seem quite long, they capture my fascination for this lovely book.
When I was little, my mother told me there are basically two kinds of people in the world: town people and circus people. The kind who stay are town people, and the kind who leave are circus people Dad used to tell me that I’m a lot like my mother, but this worries him, like I’m cursed, like he somehow failed to give me more of himself. And I have to admit, the part of me that’s my mother scares me more than a little. It’s a fire that burns hot and bright, and I know if I let it get out of control, I’ll turn into flecks of scorched paper and blow away. But that fire also gave me the courage to leave Lima and make the life I wanted, for which I’m thankful.
At the college where I teach, I’m surrounded by circus people. We aren’t tightrope walkers or acrobats. We don’t breathe fire or swallow swords. We’re gypsies, moving wherever there’s work to be found. Our scrapbooks and photo albums bear witness to our vagabond lives: college years, grad-school years, instructor-mill years, first-job years. In between each stage is a picture of old friends helping to fill a truck with boxes and furniture. We pitch our tents, and that place becomes home for a while. We make families from colleagues and students, lovers and neighbors. And when that place is no longer working, we don’t just make do. We move on the place that’s next. No place is home. Every place is home. Home is our stuff. As much as I love the Cumberland Valley at twilight, I probably won’t live there forever, and this doesn’t really scare me. That’s how I know I’m circus people. (pp. 269-270).
Cathy Day was born and raised in what is known to be a circus town: Peru, Indiana. She teaches creative writing at Ball State University. The Circus in Winter is her first novel and has received a great deal of recognition: it was a finalist for the GLCA New Writers Award, the Great Lakes Book Award, and the Story Prize (source here) – and was even adapted into a musical.
To know more about Cathy Day, click here to be taken to her official website.
The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day. A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., 2004. Book borrowed from the community library.