For today’s Nonfiction Monday, hosted by Travis Jonker from 100 Scope Notes, I bring you Laurence Yep’s When the Circus Came to Town. Luckily, this book coincides with our bimonthly theme: Circus, Carnivale, and Paranormal Twists.
Last year, Myra posted a review of Laurence Yep’s The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale. The review didn’t cross my mind until I saw a list of books that Laurence Yep had written. Suffice it to say that I’m happy to share with you another work by prolific children’s writer Laurence Yep.
“Chase the Sun, Mister Cutthroat”: Pirate Ursula and Her Bloodthirsty Crew
Laurence Yep’s When the Circus Came to Town tells the story of ten-year-old Ursula who loves her life in the small town of Whistle, Montana, or what her father refers to as the Back of Beyond. She helps her parents run a stagecoach station.
You couldn’t get me to live anywhere else – not for a thousand dollars. Not for ten thousand. There was always something to keep me hopping. We ran a stagecoach station, so there were horses to tend. I never gave them names though or got too friendly with them. They could be gone with the next stagecoach.
And when a stagecoach came in, didn’t we jump! There were a hundred things for a body to do, and all of them had to be done at once. Sometimes I helped Pa change the horses. Sometimes I helped him load and unload packages. A lot of times I helped Ma serve meals to the passengers.
When chores were done, I could walk through a meadow. After a rain was best, because the sage smelled the freshest. Or I’d give an ear to the larks in the meadows along the rivers. Or in the spring I could pick lupines until my arms ached. – p. 2
When Ursula keeps hearing her friends talk about leaving Whistle and moving to big cities like Boston and San Francisco, she tries to convince them that ‘there ain’t no place like Whistle.’ Hence the birth of Pirate Ursula and Her Bloodthirsty Crew – Killer Susie, Cutthroat Peter, and Deadly Dan.
All is well until tragedy strikes. Ursula contracts smallpox and is left with facial scars that cause her pain inside and out. She decides to hide from the world. Pirate Ursula dies with it, and she starts seeing herself as Monster Ursula.
I was real shaky when I stood up, and I walked stiff as a marionette to my bureau. When I picked up my little mirror, I stared at my reflection. There were holes all over both my cheeks. I looked like I had slept on a brush so the bristles had marked my face. – p. 14
Smallpox and Trembles, Montana: The Tale Behind the Tale
In the preface, Laurence Yep wrote:
I would never have dared try to make up a multicultural tale like this. However, truth is often stranger than fiction and, in this case, delightfully so. The story is based on real events that happened in Trembles, Montana.
Smallpox was a potentially deadly infectious disease that had plagued humans for centuries. Smallpox got its name from its most common symptom: small blisters erupting on the face, arms, and body that become filled with pus. The World Health Organization declared its eradication in 1979. (Taken from WebMD.)
The story of Ursula is the story of an attractive woman named Cora Lentz who shared Ursula’s fate when she contracted smallpox. When the Circus Came to Town was inspired by Elliot Paul’s A Ghost Town on the Yellowstone. To read briefly about Cora’s story, click here. While this book was published in 1948, I would love to get a copy and read what happened to Cora.
There was almost nothing written about her on the Internet. Moreover, Trembles has become a ghost town, and county maps usually do not show ghost towns. Supposedly, it was located near the Yellowstone River in Eastern Montana.
Reading about ghost towns made me remember the long drive that Mikey and I took on our way to Reno, Nevada. When we took the trip, we relied on an older type of GPS and my phone, which was not even fully charged. We were about to run out of gas and we just passed a gas station. (I forgot where we were at the time, but we still had a long way to go.)
According to the GPS, there was a Shell station not too far from where we were. Somewhere along the way we got lost and stumbled upon this ‘ghost town.’ The place wasn’t so much a ghost town, really; it was simply eerie. It had all these old-school shops that remind you of the Wild West. Given that it was past midnight, the place was empty. We drove around it for a while trying to find our way out.
As we drove closer to our destination, we found not a Shell station but a 7-Eleven without a gas station. Mikey left me in the car to ask about Shell. As it turned out, there used to be a Shell station where the 7-Eleven now stood, but it had been 2 years since it was taken down. Sent me chills that lasted a long while after we left the place. At the time I wasn’t thinking about the GPS not being updated. It was too creepy for me.
The Plight of Immigrants Explored in the Story
This is our first official entry to the Immigrant Stories Challenge hosted by Books in the City. When Ursula got sick with the smallpox, her mother had to juggle between taking care of her and handling the stagecoach station. Eventually, Ursula’s father had to hire a Chinese cook named Ah Sam.
Ah Sam represents immigrants who had to leave their own country to try their luck in greener pastures to help their families. Ah Sam told Ursula that when he first came to America, he had a hard time getting employed. He eventually found a job as a houseboy to a family in San Francisco.
As Ursula listened to Ah Sam’s story, she realized that they share something in common: the feeling of being isolated from the world. Soon, she found herself warming up to the Chinese cook and took comfort in his stories about China, his family, and the circus.
The Courage to Find the Beauty Within
The story of Pirate Ursula reminds us that no matter how scarred or wounded we are on the outside, or how ugly we see ourselves, we are still beautiful inside. It is that beauty within that matters. Will Ursula ever muster the courage to find her inner beauty? You will have to find out for yourselves. Laurence Yep’s When the Circus Came to Town is a story full of charm, wit, and humor. Fall in love with Pirate Ursula and her quest to face the world again in this delightful middle grade book.
When the Circus Came to Town
By Laurence Yep, drawings by Suling Wang
Reading Level: Ages 8 and up
Hardcover: 112 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers (2002)
Book borrowed from the Chula Vista Public Library.
PoC Reading Challenge Update: 9 of 25