Truevine by Beth Macy

The Blurb On The Back:

Two brothers, a kidnapping and a mother’s quest: a true story of the American south.

The year was 1899, as the old people told the story; the place a sweltering tobacco farm in Truevine, Virginia, the heart of the Jim Crow South, where everyone the Muse brothers knew was either a former slave, or a child or grandchild of slaves.

George and Willie Muse were just six and nine years’ old, but they worked the fields from dawn to dark.  Until a white man offered them candy, and stole them away to become circus freaks.  For the next twenty-eight years, their distraught mother struggled to get them back.

But were they really kidnapped?  And how did their mother, a barely literate black woman in the segregated South, manage to bring them home?  And why, after coming home, did they want to go back to the circus?

At the height of their fame, the Muse brothers performed for royalty at Buckingham Palace and headlined over a dozen sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden.  They were global superstars in a pre-broadcast era.  But the very root of their success was in the colour of their skin and in the outrageous caricatures they were forced to assume: supposed cannibals, sheep-headed freaks, even ‘Ambassadors from Mars’.

The result of hundreds of interviews and decades of research, Truevine tells the extraordinary story of what really happened to the Muse brothers for the first time.  It is an unforgettable tale of cruelty and exploitation, but also of loyalty, determination and love. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

In 1899 George and Willie Muse, albino African American boys aged nine and six years old were working in the tobacco fields in Truevine, Virginia when they were approached by a circus talent scout who lured them away to a life as circus freaks.  It was 28 years before their mother, Hattie, saw them again during which time George and Willie criss-crossed the United States with various shows, including the famous Ringling Brothers Circus.  George and Willie’s family all knew the story of the court case that Hattie brought to get her boys back – a rare story of an African American person taking on a white institution in the Jim Crow South.  Beth Macy had always wanted to write the story but Nancy Saunders, the brothers’ niece who cared for Willie in his old age, was protective of her uncles and their reputation.

Macy finally got Nancy’s blessing to write this book in 2013, 12 years after Willies’ death, and that’s the main issue for me because piecing together the brothers’ story produces discrepancies with what their relatives believe years and there’s no one who was alive at the time who can give more primary information.  For example, while the family believed the brothers had been kidnapped, advertisements and court papers suggested that Hattie had actually given her blessing to the circus taking them in return for getting a share of their pay cheque and it wasn’t until 1914 that they were actually kidnapped.  As a result, there’s a lot of supposition about what Hattie felt and why she took the action she took and although Macy asks a lot of questions and posits some interesting answers, there’s little that’s definitive here and I didn’t really come away feeling that I understood the brothers.  However the book is very strong on the experience of African Americans in Jim Crow America and on life in circus freak shows (both the exploitation and the way it offered some individuals freedom), particularly the daily indignities and racism that came through every area of life from the media to the court system and daily interactions with white people (also as a trigger warning there’s a photograph from a lynching in the book).  Ultimately whilst this is an unsatisfying biography, it is an excellent piece of social history and an important book about a time, the effects of which continue to be felt today.

TRUEVINE was released in the United Kingdom on 9th March 2017.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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