Thoughts on the Book:
Truevine is not directly connected to Freaks, but it has tangential connections. The book documents the story of George and Willie Muse, two albino African American brothers who were kidnapped and forced to work in circus freak shows for decades throughout the early 20th century. Or so the common story goes.
As Virginia newspaper reporter Beth Macy discovered, the truth was more complicated than that. She uncovered evidence, though no means conclusive, that they were, essentially, sold to the circus by relatives. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding their entry into circus life, the brothers were certainly exploited, going unpaid for years before their mother engaged in several protracted legal battles on their behalf to ensure that they were at least fairly compensated. The two never appeared in Freaks, but the movie is filled with their contemporaries, who are frequently mentioned in Truevine.
There is a fascinating story buried within Truevine, but I felt like the author struggled with multiple organizational issues that weakened the book’s effect and rendered it confusing and hard to follow. Julie had warned me that the book had organizational issues, but it was difficult to appreciate how extensive they were until I started reading.
One of the biggest issues is that the author skipped back and forth between events with inadequate transitions and for no apparent reason. It made her timeline difficult to follow and spoiled some of the foreshadowing I suspect she was aiming for.
For example, she mentions several times that the boys may not have been kidnapped before she gets to that point. When she finally is ready to explain what she means, she then admits that the evidence is inconclusive but suggestive of a different story, then spends the rest of the book rotating between claiming they were kidnapped and claiming that they weren’t before she ultimately admits toward the end that she has no idea how they got into the circus. Whatever dramatic tension she could have developed in dropping a bombshell that the two may not have been kidnapped was spoiled by bringing that fact up multiple times before she advances the argument and then not developing her argument adequately once she gets there and then finally backtracking, which just makes it seem like she was going for drama instead of a factual accounting of what happened.
I also found that very little of the overall book dealt with the Muse brothers. Instead, the book largely focuses on their family and conditions in their native Virginia. I appreciate that this context is necessary for understanding a lot of what happens in the book, including the question of whether their family were the ones who turned them over to the circus and why they would do that, but by the end, the book reads more like a history of the Muse family and Roanoke, Virginia that lightly touches on the Muse brothers than the other way around.
The author’s tendency to insert herself and her rocky friendship with the Muses’ niece and her experiences in Roanoke and researching the story, as well as biographical information about seemingly everyone she encounters, including court researchers, also causes the Muses to come off as the least significant aspect of a book ostensibly focused on them.
That’s not to say that the book is bad. I thought the author was a good writer and a thorough researcher. She raises some though-provoking questions, including were the brothers better off or not at the circus and if modern day society is really more enlightened in its treatment of “freaks.” Her discussion of these topics has nuance and is fair-minded, but I wish she had focused more of her attention to these matters than she did.
Ultimately, if you want to read a book about the Muse family and African American life in Roanoke, Virginia, this is a great book. But it’s not really a great book about George and Willie Muse because they seem to barely figure into the story being told.
The verdict: I preferred the movie. I’ve watched it twice now and would gladly watch it again. I learned a lot reading Truevine and–as I stated above–it isn’t a bad book, but it’s not really the book that it claims to be and some of its structural issues also make me unlikely to want to revisit it.
Have you watched Freaks? Have you read Truevine? What’s your favorite circus story? Tell us in the comments!