The circus, at the height of its popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, provided an attractive future for many rural adolescents. Independence and a chance to travel were some of the reasons why young people ran away to join the “big top.” For others, however, the circus was a prison, not a liberator.
In 1899, a circus promoter kidnapped young George and Willie Muse, who both had albinism, from a field near their home in Truevine, a small African-American tobacco farming community outside of Roanoke, Virginia. For the following decades, the brothers performed as sideshow attractions, often portrayed as savages, cannibals, or aliens. Circus managers treated George and Willie cruelly, forbidding them from contacting their family and refusing to pay them. The boys were told that their mother was dead, when in reality she was desperately searching for them.
In her book, Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, Jane Macy explores the story of Willie and George Muse and their mother’s struggle to find the brothers and secure for them a better future. In the 1980s, as a reporter for the Roanoke Times, Macy began hearing rumors about the Muse brothers – “the best story in town.” Interested, Macy befriended the brother’s niece and caregiver, Nancy Saunders. It took nearly two decades for Macy to gain Saunders’ trust. She ultimately began her research and interviews only after Willie’s death in 2001.
Truevine is not just a story of the circus. Although George and Willie’s tale was both fascinating and horrifying, their mother Harriet’s quest for justice was just as compelling. After tracking down her sons, she confronted their circus managers and eventually sued Ringling Brothers for mistreatment and back pay in the 1920s. Her persistence ensured that George and Willie were able to return to the circus on their own terms, with fair wages. I was impressed with Harriet Muse’s bravery in confronting the famous Ringling Brothers during the height of Jim Crow. Truevine is a fascinating story of the South during this period. I highly recommend it.
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby-Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended