The Life She Was Given, Ellen Marie Wiseman

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Who hasn't dreamed of running away with the circus? Well, actually, I'm not sure anyone dreams of this anymore, but it's become such a cliche for our desire to escape the everyday world of chores and responsibilities that it feels almost universal. But for some circus performers, running away with the circus was less about escape and more about survival, and for others, the choice to join the circus wasn't even theirs to make.

The history of the circus freak show is long and full of both heroes and villains. The public's fascination with medical oddities has probably always existed, but it came to prominence most strongly during the Victorian era. From small traveling carnivals to huge circuses like Barnum and Bailey, freak shows provided an experience designed to shock the mind and boggle the senses. Many of the sideshow acts were faked, but others capitalized on (and/or exploited) people who suffered from rare medical conditions, or who somehow looked different than the norm (think bearded lady or tattooed man). Depending on which shows and which circus owners you're talking about, freak shows either provided a safe place and a community for people who had been rejected by society, or unending slavery for people who were often sold to the shows by the family who rejected them.

The Life She Was Given tells the second kind of story. Eleven-year-old Lilly has spent her entire life in her attic bedroom, forbidden from exploring the house where she lives, Blackwood Manor, or the gardens and fields surrounding it. Her mother says it's for her own protection; that if people saw her, they would be afraid of her and might hurt her. One night, Lilly sees the lights of a circus in the distance. That night, for the first time, her mother takes her outside-and sells her to the circus sideshow.

A couple of decades later, young Julia Blackwood inherits Blackwood Manor, the strict childhood home she left behind after her father died, fleeing the lonely silence and strict rules of the big old house. When she returns after her mother's death, she hopes to find a way to exorcise the demons of her lonely childhood and bring light into the house, but what she discovers in her explorations of the old manor leads her deep into the mystery of the child who lived in the attic.

I will admit to getting totally sucked into this book. It is a quick read, and much of the story is not hard to predict. It reminded me a lot of Water for Elephants, as an elephant and its trainer have a prominent place in the story. I will say, though, that while I had a pretty good idea that something tragic would happen, the form that tragedy took was not what I expected. The descriptions of circus life are similar to other novels with circus settings that I've read, and Wiseman manages to fit in not one but two love stories, though one is much better developed than the other. Both main characters are well-written, and the story definitely has a strong emotional impact on the reader.

One word of warning: If you are someone who is squeamish about or sensitive to violence against animals, there's a section you might want to skip. You'll know it when you get there. Suffice it to say it turns out for the animal in question the way you'd expect based on what else has happened in the story. Wiseman does not shy away from putting her characters, even the animal ones, through some pretty awful stuff.

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