The Arts

The Sideshow is the Story: A review of Beth Macy’s ‘Truevine’

beth-macy-sqA Review of Truevine, by Beth Macy
Little, Brown, 2016. $28.00

Editor’s note: Beth Macy will speak at Scuppernong Books at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 27.

For many non-fiction writers, the story they’ve been waiting their whole lives to tell remains elusive. It never presents itself. These writers find other stories, important stories, and continue to produce notable books and articles. Beth Macy’s first book, Factory Man, was an important story of the failure and survival of the American furniture industry; it was also a marvel of journalistic skill and energy as it uncovered the trade (and family) secrets of the Bassett furniture empire.

But the life of Factory Man John Bassett is not the story Beth Macy has been waiting her whole life to tell. It turns out that the once-in-a-lifetime story was much closer to her Roanoke, Virginia home. And the characters in this story were much easier to care for, to love, and Macy uses that obvious passion to create a remarkable account of lives lived on the edges of 20th Century America: Truevine.

Truevine (which suffers from an overly explained subtitle: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South) is the account of the lives of George and Willie Muse–albino African-American brothers born into an early 20th Century sharecropping family who go on to become world famous, but never under their own names. The brothers are “kidnapped” by a “bad man” sometime after 1910 (the exact date is hard to know) and spend the next several decades as sideshow circus “freaks.”

Truevine is a small Virginia mountain town and was the kind of place where “the notion of kidnapping seem(ed) almost like an opportunity.” The opportunity granted the Muse brothers included economic exploitation and degradation, and the opportunity included the complete separation from everything they loved.

truevineMacy traces the various circuses and sideshows that employed (a term used not to imply paid renumeration), traded and sold George and Willie. They were the property of their owners and Macy makes clear that the imagined improvements from slavery to Jim Crow South were often non-existent–especially for those on the margins. Macy’s journalistic skills are again on display as she somehow tracks through time the improbable journey of the Muse brothers.

The early 20th Century circus was in constant motion and George and Willie appeared across the United States for years in a variety of hyperbolic guises and aliases. It might not seem freakish at all today, but simply being albino African Americans was enough to draw crowds and even featured billing. Their stage names were various (once called “Ambassadors From Mars”), but always returned to “the singsong names that forever bound them together: Eko and Iko.” Often Macy’s journalistic trail depended upon advertisements–sometimes found on that ancient medium of microfilm–in local newspapers that hinted at the albino sideshow. This kind of research is time consuming, eye-damaging and patience-exhausting work, and Macy has become an acknowledged master of it.

But research without a narrative to hang it on is not of much use. Non-fiction narrative is a creation. Truevine has an historical timeline to follow, but no story is best served by a plodding straight-forward movement through time. Macy complicates her work by thinking hard about how to reveal details and important plot twists, and about how to do so without the reader feeling manipulated. Truevine begins with the understanding that the bad circus man came into the tobacco fields of rural Virginia and stole George and Willie muse. It’s a believable story, but as Macy digs deeper and deeper into the story she finds some uncomfortable complications. Macy lets her growing understanding of what really happened play out in the narrative and the reader’s discovery mirrors the authors.

As the over long subtitle suggests, Truevine is also the story of the Jim Crow South, and includes the miserable tropes of the era: lynchings, wretched poverty, the KKK, etc. The “whiteness” of the brothers is an interesting conundrum for racists, and is probably at the root of their popularity as attractions. The “Mother’s Quest” is what moves Macy most, and her writing on Harriet Muse’s attempts to find her son is what drives this book’s emotional engine.

The literary critic Leslie Fiedler once said, “Nobody can write about Freaks without somehow exploiting them for their own needs.” Macy uses this quote early on, and she’s well aware of the sensitive ground Truevine walks. Another hero of the book is the Muse brothers’ caretaker in later life, Nancy Saunders, who adamantly enforces the privacy and dignity of their lives as they lived on into the 21st Century. Many of the sideshow characters who traveled alongside the Muse brothers were famous in their own right, and Macy is always respectful of their humanity, even as we read on, I suspect, for our own voyeuristic reasons.

There’s no doubting the care and even love Beth Macy has for the characters of her own book. It’s a story she was born to tell, and we should all be grateful that she found out in her own Virginia backyard.