Beth Macy, a former Roanoke Times journalist, first heard about the Muse brothers during her work at the paper in the 1980s. Their story was well-known, but not in much detail: the outline was that two albino African-American brothers were kidnapped by the circus and spent years touring in the freak show before their mother found them again. Whether they’d been captured or sold, what their work really entailed, and other details were conflicting.
The surviving descendants of the Muse family, which at that time included one of the brothers, Willie, were fiercely private and uninterested in attention. It took Macy many years to gain some semblance of trust with the family and learn more about the brothers’ fates.
It’s difficult if informative reading. Macy was fascinated with the story and the legend of George and Willie, two Boo Radley-esque figures. They were born to Harriett Muse and a family of tobacco sharecroppers in Truevine, Virginia, near Roanoke.
What exactly happened in 1899 is disputed. According to Willie’s stories later in life, a man approached them as they worked the tobacco rows and kidnapped them, “stolen” in Willie’s words. They became circus freaks, rebranded and displayed and hauled all over the country to earn money for someone else because of their unusual and misunderstood appearance. For twelve years, they didn’t see their mother, and during that time she had no idea where they were.
Here begins the confusion: an historical record exists showing that Harriett placed a newspaper ad seeking information about the boys, and its wording indicates she’d “contracted” them out as circus performers, but they were absconded with and she’d been allowed no contact since.
Macy points out that this wouldn’t be as harsh or cold as it might initially seem – as albinos, the boys wouldn’t have been able to work extensively in the family’s sharecropping due to sun sensitivity. With their family status and economic situation in a small town, there wasn’t much opportunity for them to adopt another trade. It may have seemed like the best option for them to be taken care of, fed, and paid something without suffering due to their physical condition.
But Nancy Saunders, Willie’s primary caregiver and fiercely protective great grandniece, vehemently disputes this. She felt Harriett would’ve never let them go, and it’s why she searched so dedicatedly until the day when, like a movie scene, the circus came to Roanoke and she appeared in the crowd where the brothers excitedly spotted her.
Truevine was an average read for me, with some excellent parts and some less interesting segues, until I came to the final several chapters, which describe the last years of the longer-living brother, Willie, and the family that lovingly cares for him as he passes 100 years old. I was so affected.
I hate to be someone who says “This book made me cry, so it’s great.” I hate crying and I have enough reasons to do it on my own without things I read. But reading Macy’s conclusion, when Nancy Saunders finally divulged some personal details of his life and her family’s, I was overcome with the emotional impact of the entire story.
I felt broken over the racial elements of the story – what Virginia and the greater United States was like at the time of the Muse brothers’ lives, what their families and others endured, the overwhelming injustices of the Jim Crow South. It’s infuriating, and frustrating, and heartbreaking, even more so considering that despite all our progress, race relations in the US today are so troubled. And it all bubbled over when I read what Willie advised one of his nurses when she had a bad day: “Be better than the person who is mistreating you.”
Imagine having that kind of grace and forgiveness.
Macy did here what any great nonfiction author should do – if there’s not enough existing information about the story you’re telling, fill in the gaps by explaining what was going on around that story.
Teasing out the Muse brothers’ behind-the-scenes character is somewhat harder, not just because of the universally racist press accounts but also because few, if any, insiders bothered to record and report their point of view.
In this case, it’s the racial climate of the United States from the late 1890s through 1950s; the history of Roanoke and its active chapter of the KKK, including racist figures in city administration and powerful positions; the Jim Crow South and hows its rules touched so many corners of this story; and in large part, this is a history of the circus, specifically its sideshows and “freak” exhibits. Macy is generally successful in making these surrounding circumstances significant to the Muses’ story.
Reared at a time when a black man could be jailed or even killed just for looking at a white woman—reckless eyeballing, the charge was officially called—the Muse brothers were doubly cursed.
As hard as it is to read these things and learn what things like reckless eyeballing are, some of them so barbaric, and to learn more specific cases and details like what Macy presents from her research, we should read them. After all the injustices committed, it’s not right to commit one more by looking away, whether out of shame or guilt or worse, disinterest.
The racial and Jim Crow aspects were painful but important, but the circus and sideshow elements wore me down. They’re both stories of injustice, intolerance and exploitation, but maybe the problem was that the circus segues were so in-depth that sometimes it felt like a book of circus history. She’s thorough, and details both life stories and injustices of many performers, but they dragged in a way that felt exhausting instead of affecting in a different way, like knowing more about the Jim Crow South felt.
I realize even writing that how bad it sounds. Maybe it was too much inhumanity and exploitation on two fronts that hurt, knowing that’s what the brothers experienced. But as Nancy constantly reminds, “In the end, they came out on top.”
Once Harriett found a helpful lawyer and the brothers were set up with a decent manager who paid them mostly regularly and offered fair contracts and conditions, they returned to circus work and began earning not only enough money to support Harriett, but to allow her to purchase property and a home – a not insignificant feat for a black maid, as Macy points out, when only 20% of African-Americans were homeowners at the time. Money beyond supporting Harriett went into savings for the brothers, so they had a substantial nest egg when they retired.
Things had changed a lot, though, since George and Willie left home in 1914 and especially since they joined Ringling in 1922. Their hair, for one thing. Their show names, for another. Not to mention their hometowns, home states, home countries—and even their planets.
They were billed as ambassadors from Mars, sheepheaded cannibals from Ecuador (their hair was left to form matted dreadlocks for greater effect), or Ethiopian Monkey Men. Remember that quote from Willie about treating others better? Again, I’m in awe.
Nancy’s protectiveness and care touched me, especially that she guarded her uncles because she didn’t want anyone else gawking at them after what they’d been through their entire lives. Not surprising considering the above.
A powerful story of a terrible chapter in American history and culture, tying together elements of Jim Crow Southern history, the dark side of the circus, and a family legend ultimately ending in quiet, dignified triumph.