Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South
The subtitle of TRUEVINE is “Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.” So, of course, I expected to read the story of one mother’s quest to find her kidnapped sons. However, shortly into the first chapter, I realized that the book goes far beyond its subtitle.
TRUEVINE revolves around the lives of George and Wille Muse --- aka Sheep-Headed Cannibals, Ecuadorian white savages, and Eko and Iko, the Ambassadors from Mars. George and Willie were albinos, African Americans who were born to a sharecropper family and worked on a sweltering tobacco farm in the Jim Crow South town of Truevine, Virginia. One day, a white man offered the two boys a piece of candy. This singular act led to their abduction, and they were forced to work beside other “freaks” in different circuses, most notably the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
"...a magnificent, heartwarming and fascinating book... It is a triumphant tale in which these two boys, who had a hard life and were treated as simpletons and as freaks but had great musical talent, 'came out on top.'"
The Muse brothers are not the only protagonists here, though. TRUEVINE introduces readers to Harriet Muse, the boys’ mother, who was determined to get them back safe and sound. We also learn about those who ran the circuses and worked in sideshow attractions alongside George and Willie. The book uncovers a magnificent and horrific world of people with different forms of disabilities who somehow managed to find a sanctuary in circuses.
But TRUEVINE aspires to greater heights. Author Beth Macy slowly put together a big story about the political, racial and economic situations in the US, particularly in the South. She conducted hundreds of interviews and decades of research in order to construct an authentic story about poverty, race and power. She writes about the lives of former slaves, their hardships, and how, after being liberated from slavery, they were put in a different kind of slavery --- an economic one --- and how segregation pushed them even further into poverty.
TRUEVINE does not provide the whole picture of the Muse brothers’ lives, and inevitably some pieces of the puzzle are missing. One of the reasons is that Macy never had the chance to interview Willie Muse, who died in 2001 at the age of 108, and his family chose not to share too much information with her. So the reader will never find out how badly the brothers were treated while working in the circus or why they decided to return there after being reunited with their mother. It is still not known if the boys were actually kidnapped or if Harriet made some kind of deal with the circus recruiter that ultimately went south and caused her to want to find her sons and bring them back home.
In the end, though, this is irrelevant to me. What matters is that Beth Macy has written a magnificent, heartwarming and fascinating book and kept her promise to the Muse brothers’ great-niece, Nancy Saunders (who also was Willie’s caretaker in his old age), to tell their story fairly and with dignity. It is a triumphant tale in which these two boys, who had a hard life and were treated as simpletons and as freaks but had great musical talent, “came out on top.”
Reviewed by Dunja Bonacci on November 3, 2016