Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Truevine by Beth Macy
Little, Brown and Company: 10/18/16
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316337540

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest by Beth Macy is the very highly recommended true story of two African-American brothers who were stolen and shown as circus freaks. Macy summarizes her book as "It's a story about race, greed, and the circus, and I've been chasing it for more than 25 years."

The story of how 9 year old George, and 6 year old Willie Muse were stolen in 1899 right out of the tobacco field where they were working was handed down through the African-American families who lived in Truevine, Virginia, for generations. George and Willie, who were both albinos, were enslaved by a circus side-show manager and forced to be on display as various caricatures over the years. The Muse brothers became a popular top tier sideshow act. At Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey they were known as "Eko and Iko, the Ecuadorian Savages. During various other shows they were billed as cannibals, sheep-headed freaks, even "Ambassadors from Mars."

Their mother may have initially made an agreement for the boys to work at the sideshow, but did not plan to have her boys enslaved by a shifty promoter and never returned home. She spent 28 years trying to get them back and securing pay for their work, which had been uncompensated.

The historical scope of Macy's book is rich in period details and facts. Macy divides her book into four parts. She focuses on the world the boys were born into, the Jim Crow South, and looks at the life in the circus, including  the side show acts/performers and managers, while uncovering the scarce details she could find about the life of the Muse brothers in the circus. Macy clearly admires Harriet Muse, the boy's mother, and her determination to find and secure some kind of compensation for their work. She managed to use the legal system to her advantage during a time when that scarcely seems possible.

Truevine is an extremely well researched, thoughtfully written, historical account that is just as gripping as a thriller. Macy, a reporter, spent years waiting for the Muse family to approve her covering this story. Then she spent more time researching the story of the Muse brothers and the pertinent background information. and the historical context of the times. Her account of the facts and presentation of the historical information is simple fascinating and results in a compelling narrative that is a credit to her skills at research, reporting the facts, and presenting the information in a factual yet compassionate way. 

As is my wont, I was thrilled to see that Truevine includes extensive notes for each chapter and an index.  This is one non-fiction book that should not be missed.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

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