Book Review: The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day

Circus in WinterI didn’t mean to post another book review so soon. I would like to try to space my reviews at least a couple of weeks apart. But what can I say? This was a good book. It’s been a while since I devoured a book within a couple of days instead of a month. I used to do that a lot more, back when I useless time to burn, like commuting or standing in line at the DMV…

The Circus in Winter is actually a collection of short stories about The Great Porter circus, which spent its winters in Lima, Indiana. The stories span time, from the early 1700s all the way to 2000, with the early 1900s being center stage, when the circus was in blossom. We don’t actually see the circus itself in action–the stories instead focus on some of the performers during downtime, and as the book reads on, people who are either directly affected, like descendents, or indirectly, like a family who buys the circus property later on. Day does a wonderful job of arranging the stories so that someone’s lifestory starts in one tale and ends in another. You actually get a sense of the stories revolving around each other like, well, like a circus.

Two storylines really stood out to me: the Jungle Goolah Boy tells the story of a black man who’s main job was to act like a wild man during the sideshows. I never knew that black people were involved with circuses back then, and Day’s stories that centered around two black families that worked with the Porter Circus made me want to learn more. It was also sad, seeing them act out the stereotypical ‘African Jungle Wildman”, and it was equally sad to see that to them, it was a job. It paid well. Nothing more.

The other storyline actually spans several tales, but is about a woman whose father was a clown in the circus and whose grandfather was murdered by an elephant. Her story, how she feels trapped in the town, has the best understated dialogue exchange with her mother I have read in a long time.

Day’s writing is wonderful; she uses different styles, from articles and journal entries, to straight storytelling, to interviews, and in one case, a child’s essay. There is one story that seems to be a stretch to fit in with the circus motif, but towards the end of the book, you can see why she included it. As you read, the stories show not just circus culture, but the need to get out and travel from place to place, the wanderlust that shows up in people, the fierce need to wake up in a town that’s not your own. And the final story in her book, told from the point of view of the daughter of the woman mentioned in the previous paragraph, wraps that up very, very well.

In a way, I wish there were more stories in the book. We really don’t know Porter’s fate; well, we do, in the end, but not how he got there. But the show has to end at some point, and I for one was very glad to experience it. This gets a rating of 5 elephants out of 5, and I can’t wait for Daniel to be old enough to go to the circus. Both he and I will see it with new eyes.