The circus brothers


My Times review of Truevine, Beth Macy’s account of the lives of the black albino brothers, George and Willie Muse, star turns in American freak shows:

As minor celebrities they appeared in the pages of The New Yorker — usually accompanied by the most patronising of racial terms — and in 1928 they sailed the Atlantic to perform in London. Audiences here, apparently were not wildly enthusiastic, partly because, as one observer noted, the brothers seemed to be mentally handicapped. It was a point often made about them. Others disagreed, arguing that the claims of a low IQ were a mistaken response to their poor eyesight, a common affliction among albinos. (The Times, it seems, took a dim view of the freak phenomenon in general: “We are tired,” wrote its correspondent, “of gaping at those of our fellow creatures who occupy sideshows; we are anxious to understand them instead.”)

[…] Their story came to the attention of Macy, a local journalist and author of Factory Man, an acclaimed account of the struggles of an Appalachian furniture company. Intrigued, she began digging away, teasing information out of the brothers’ great-niece, a no-nonsense restaurant owner who had little time for white journalists, even well-meaning liberal ones. Piece by piece, however, Macy begins to assemble scraps of detail, rummaging through archives and interviewing the survivors of a vanishing world of circus entertainers and hangers-on.

The photographs that she has unearthed are astonishingly evocative time capsules; the narrative turns out to be a lot less satisfying, zigzagging through a good deal of superfluous social history. With the prose studded with so many “maybes”, “it isn’t clear” and other speculative phrases, even the most basic facts remain hazy. Other passages have a jarringly novelistic flavour. Amid all the sociological padding, George and Willie remain ghostly figures glimpsed from a distance. We learn next to nothing about their daily routines or their inner lives, and their final decades hurtle past in a few cursory pages.

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