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E&H Bookblog

Book Review of True Vine:Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, by Beth Macy

Easty Lambert-Brown

This book has largely been marketed as the story of the Muse brothers, two African American men from Truevine, Virginia, who were kidnapped (or were they?) into the circus and who traveled in sideshows (they were albinos) for several decades during the early 1900s.

While it is true that Macy does tell their story as she has reconstituted it through research and interviews with Muse family members, the book also covers several larger topics—including the history of racial violence and lynchings in the region and the South in general, the history of American circuses, and the stories of other people who were performers in so-called “freakshows” during the same period as the Muses.

The good thing about this is that it is all interesting—it makes the book feel like a series of poppy, trade-oriented American Studies classes. But it also give the impression that Macy couldn’t find enough information about the Muse brothers’ story alone to fill out a whole book, so she had to pad it out with the other aspects of history. But I was glad to learn about the other history, even when I was a little impatient to get back to the Muses’ story. It is an easy, quick read.

I was conscious the whole time that it seemed like Macy had deliberately written in an accessible, trade-oriented way (in another authors’ hands this material could have been very scholarly instead). Sometimes I thought she went a little overboard in this direction. In particular, I sometimes found the writing style annoying when she would employ simplistic writing and short, choppy sentences or fragments—a style that I have noticed has become very popular since the runaway success of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City (in which nearly every section and chapter ends with a very portentous single-sentence paragraph to try to boost drama and suspense even when it is completely unwarranted). But you can’t blame her for trying to write toward a popular audience, and, on balance, I think it works.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the histories of the South, racial injustice in America, or circuses.

—Joanna Jacobs, Tuscaloosa