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

Immigrant Stories Challenge Update: 1 of 6

Fats is the Assistant Manager for Circulation Services at the Wayne County Public Library in Wooster, Ohio. She considers herself a reader of all sorts, although she needs to work on her non-fiction reading. Fats likes a good mystery but is not too fond of thrillers. She takes book hoarding seriously and enjoys collecting bookmarks and tote bags. When she is not reading, Fats likes to shop pet apparel for her cat Penny (who absolutely loathes it).

18 comments on “Meet Pirate Ursula and Her Bloodthirsty Crew (And a Few Stories in Between)

  1. What a great post, Fats. I’m going to pass this on to another blogger who lives in Montana. I only know one Yep book, Dragonwings, & remember liking it very much. I love that you expanded the knowledge of this into Montana history & your ‘adventure’ in Nevada. It’s big country out there! Thanks!


    • Hi Linda! Glad I was able to share this book to you and your blogger friend. I am very much interested in reading about his Newbery book called Dragon Soul. Oh, the Nevada ‘adventure’ sure was memorable! 🙂


  2. Very interesting. As an immigrant myself (albeit to Asia rather than from!) I am interested in other stories- especially in the time before you could Factime with your mom across the planet!


    • Hi Jen!! It’s nice to hear from someone who’s an immigrant to Asia. 🙂 I suppose you can say that technology bridges people. They are constantly trying to come up to make communication possible for two people who are thousands of miles apart. 🙂


  3. I really enjoyed this review and also your story about visiting the ghost town. There is something so evocative in the idea of an abandoned place, which still bears traces of a another time.


    • Hello Maeve!! Thank you for dropping by, and so glad that you enjoyed this review. The ghost town story gives me the creeps to this day. 😀


  4. What an interesting review. I also would encourage your readers to pick this one up — it is a good read.
    Apples with Many Seeds


  5. Thanks for these interesting reviews. I love hearing about the stories behind the stories, too.


  6. The cover really attracts me. I love beautiful pics. 🙂 The story sounds interesting. It connects to the series I just wrote about plagues. Smallpox is one of the books in the series. I will have to look into getting this book. Hopefully my library has it!


    • Hello!! Thank you for dropping by. Now, your series is interesting. Plagues are dreadful but we learn from them one way or another, don’t you think? I’d love to learn more about your plague series. 🙂


  7. What an engrossing post, Fats! Yep is such a great writer…but the story that really sticks with me here is the one of you and Mikey wandering I around that ghost town in the middle of the night. Shivers up my spine!


    • Hi Tara!! So nice to see you again!! 🙂 This is my first encounter with Yep, so I’m really looking forward to reading more of his works. That ghost town episode was really something. The thought that you can actually get lost in the middle of nowhere with nothing in tow but a half-charged phone and no bills is pretty scary. We’ll be ready next time!! 😀


  8. I’d never heard of author or book but will be putting Yep on my TBR list. Thanks for the review. It sounds interesting!


  9. Pingback: List of Circus, Carnivale, Paranormal Themed Books for All Ages «

  10. booksnyc

    Thank you so much for linking this review to the Immigrant Stories Challenge – it is great to have some children’s books in the mix! This story sounds very interesting!


    • Fats Suela

      Thank you booksnyc! It sure is interesting to have children’s books and picture books in your mix of immigrant stories. Hoping to read more and feature other novels about the topic. 🙂


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