When Beth Macy walked into Nancy Saunders’ popular soul food restaurant in Roanoke, Va., in 1991 and asked if she could write the inspiring story of her famous great-uncles, Saunders wanted none of it. But Macy didn’t give up. It took her 25 years to finally get the story, but what a story it is.
“Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South” tells the tale of two young African-American brothers forced into the “freak show” of a traveling circus at the turn of the 20th century. They were albinos, and their exotic white skin and wild dreadlocks made them a popular attraction. Billed as everything from cannibals to ambassadors from Mars, they were given new names, Eko and Iko, and treated as chattel.
Bouncing from one circus to another, young George and Willie Muse eventually landed with the big one — Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. But despite their growing fame, they were virtual slaves to their “agent” Candy Shelton, who pocketed all their earnings and told them their mother was dead.
Macy talked with family and neighbors, scoured written accounts of the day and traveled across the country looking at circus artifacts to tease out the tale of their mother Harriett’s incredible journey to reclaim her sons in the face of crushing racism and the oppressive power of the circus industry. Her courage as she faced down powerful white circus executives, armed police officers and industry lawyers allowed her to eventually prevail and provide a secure future for her sons, as well as restore their human dignity.
“Truevine” offers a fascinating peak into the quickly fading culture of the early 20th-century circus and the unique personalities of its popular sideshow performers, some of whom became celebrity superstars. But the book also is a testament to the strength and determination of those whose lives were shaped by segregationist laws and the resulting deep poverty.
In the century since George and Willie Muse disappeared from a tobacco field to be exploited as “freaks,” their descendants have become successful and educated business owners and community members. While racism is still a serious issue in the South and beyond, the family’s triumphs prove what Saunders stressed to Macy from the very start: “No matter what you find out or what your research turns up, you have to remember: In the end, they came out on top.”
“Truevine” was short-listed for the Kirkus Prize in nonfiction and was named one of 2016’s top books by The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and a number of other media outlets. Macy also is the author of the bestseller “Factory Man,” which was featured on Reader’s Corner in 2015.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Macy airs in April. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. Download our free app from Google Play or the App Store to listen to previous interviews anytime.