Monday, April 15, 2013

Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby

Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby is set in the fading glory days of the circus in America.

First Portia's mother left, then her cousins and most of her extended family. When Portia's father goes away also, Portia is left with just a strict and unsympathetic aunt -- and Portia soon proves to be too much for her, as well. Portia is sent to a School for Wayward Girls, presided over by a man the girls know only as Mister, who neglects and mistreats his charges. When tragedy strikes, Portia runs away. She runs to the circus, in hopes that she will be able to somehow discover what became of her father after he left. At Mosco's Traveling Wonder Show, Portia negotiates for a job and safety -- despite the fact that she is a "Normal" and so has little to offer the Wonder Show. As she travels with them, Portia gets to know the sideshow characters who at first seem fearsome to her. And, even more slowly, they begin to accept her as well. However, the threat of being caught and returned to Mister hangs over Portia even as she travels with the Wonder Show -- because Mister doesn't ever let go of the things or people who belong to him.

This book is strong on atmosphere and characters, with an adequate but unexceptional plot. You can almost see the haze of dust hanging over the carnival grounds as you read, and by the end of the book each character will seem as real to you as if you had been introduced to them in person. Portia's story is interspersed with vignettes from the perspectives of the various characters at the Wonder Show. An Author's Note at the end provides historical context for many of the characters described in the story. I found this an enjoyable read, and would recommend it to fans of circus stories like Water for Elephants.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

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