- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004

This jewel of a first novel confounded my expectations. When I saw the word “circus” in the title, I had forebodings of cheap grotesquerie: bearded ladies seducing the repressed wives of local preachers, maybe.

But all of Cathy Day’s characters, circus folk or not, are fully and humanly realized, and the author treats them with wise compassion, never stooping to what is crass or exploitative. In “The Circus in Winter,” she offers a compelling narrative in linked stories that gently, but keenly, probe varieties of human yearning: the deep current of wanderlust that makes lives restless; the strange new forms our old loves take amid time’s vicissitudes.

“The Circus in Winter” chronicles the life and afterlife of the fictional Great Porter Circus over more than a century. Miss Day’s title alludes to the circus’ off-peak season, when its members abandon their railcars for stationary bunkhouses to recuperate before the next tour.

Year after year, the Great Porter Circus makes its winter quarters in little Lima, Ill., the hometown of proprietor Wallace Porter. The troupe’s exotic presence ripples out into every corner of the town’s life, and is still felt there generations after its demise.

Though imaginary, the Great Porter Circus is loosely based on the real Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which once wintered in Peru, Ill. A native of that town, the author is also the great-niece of an elephant trainer and of a ticket-taker (the world’s fastest, or so he claimed).

Some characters and incidents in the book were inspired by her family history: For example, the irascible elephant trainer Hans Hofstadter is killed by his bull elephant, the same fate that Miss Day’s great-uncle met with in 1901. Old black-and-white circus photos — including one of the unfortunate uncle, Henry Hoffman, walking alongside “Big Charlie” — appear at the beginning of every story.

The evolution of Wallace Porter from an unremarkable Midwestern businessman into a would-be circus king, and how he first came to dream of “his land overrun by elephants and bears, clowns romping in the grass, acrobats dancing in his trees,” are related in the first and possibly finest piece in Miss Day’s book.

In 1883 Porter travels from Lima to New York City, ostensibly on business (but really to indulge his secret extravagant bent, “gorging himself on pheasants and artichokes” in restaurants alone). At a party he meets Irene, a young woman chafing at the confines of New York high society. They marry two weeks later and return to Lima.

Wallace is ashamed to bring this beautiful, well-bred woman he adores to live in his simple farmhouse, and promises his new wife he’ll build them a mansion; Irene is indifferent, awaiting only their next journey, a new adventure. Husband and wife continue in their painful striving at cross-purposes, Wallace consumed with his mansion rising on the hill, Irene consumed, bitterly, with unfulfilled wanderlust — and the illness that eventually kills her.

A chance business transaction between Porter and the down-at-heels manager of a failing circus seems to point a way towards redemption. What could satisfy both Wallace’s extravagant vision and Irene’s craving for adventure better than circus life? But it comes too late: Wallace rides home to find Irene dying. He has a kind of epiphany over her deathbed, a moment that becomes wrenching in Miss Day’s concise, lovely prose:

“Porter saw it then, a vision clear as the sun: his name on a dozen railcars, Irene beside him in a private Pullman as they chugged across America, a circus king and queen. She was smiling and squeezing his hand, just as she had two years ago on the wedding train from New York …

“Porter parted the red velvet curtains, and sunlight streamed into the dark bedroom. He stood back from the window to show Irene this new life. ‘Look,’ he said, almost bowing. ‘Look at what I’m going to do.’”

Wallace Porter does become a “circus king,” but one who is haunted, not triumphant. Under the shadow of Irene’s death he lives like a fugitive. And so do many others in his company — not surprisingly, the rootless community attracts such types.

Jennie Dixianna is a star acrobat, a gorgeous blonde who performs a “spin of death” high in the air, propelling her body into somersaults with one wrist held in a loop of rope. Traveling with the circus offers an escape from a past she tries to forget — “a black cat that wanted to sit heavily on her heart.”

Jennie seduces countless men (including Wallace Porter, who finds solace in her arms), but she remains aloof, wishing only for her own private Pullman car, hung with floor-to-ceiling mirrors so she can gaze at her own image.

Characters living in post-circus Lima, however, often don’t have any escape route. Growing up in the 1980s, Chicky Bowles is the descendant of circus folk, black Americans who performed as the African “Boela Tribe.” Chicky is a dwarf, and he longs for the old days, when people might have regarded him “with amazement and mirth and awe,” as opposed to “the teary-eyed glance of pity.”

His attempts at playing the clown in a local bar only land him in trouble, so he sets off for Gibsonton, Fla., a mecca for dwarf and midget circus retirees.

In the superb story “The King and His Court,” 18-year-old Laura Hofstadter — granddaughter of elephant trainer Hans — dreads becoming trapped in a staid domesticity. Laura dates her high school’s star baseball player, Ethan Perdido, for whom she feels a complacent affection that she confuses with love.

Ethan is invited to join a traveling fast-pitch softball team (“The King and His Court,” a real team from the 1940s), and Laura suddenly sees an exciting future for herself and Ethan, “driving down a highway, following the King’s Winnebago. Every day, they passed through new towns, waving to kids on bicycles …”

Then Laura becomes pregnant, and the deliciously sly conniving of the women around her — too good to reveal here — decides a very different future for her, as the reluctant mistress of the Perdido Funeral Home (“the nicest house in town,” her mother crows).

These stories are deftly interwoven, filling in each others’ blank spaces to complete a rich canvas of small-town American life. Miss Day’s writing can be sharply funny, as when Mildred Hofstadter, Laura’s frigid mother, wages silent war against her husband by leaving him notes tucked in the books he reads. “On page 25 of Riders of the Purple Sage: ‘Ollie, you have made my life a misery …’”

More often it is affecting. In “The Circus House,” Mrs. Colonel Ford, the aging wife of the Great Porter’s manager, falls in love with a young painter, whom she hires to paint gaudy murals of circus acts in her house. Although she never expresses her passion, she is mortified when the painter betrays her in the most callous manner possible.

Colonel Ford, usually indifferent to her, takes a mean delight in his wife’s humiliation. But through her pain she discovers traces of an old love that still, somehow, endures. One night she approaches the Colonel as he dances in front of the mural of Jennie Dixianna, and she remembers when they first met:

“Despite his wide girth, the Colonel still waltzed as smoothly as he had the night of the cotillion, when she’d refused to dance with him until she could no longer bear his ardor. You are the prettiest little thing here, he’d whispered in her ear.

“Mrs. Colonel knew the form he envisioned before him was Jennie’s and not her own, but she moved softly into her husband’s outstretched arms and matched his step. In that brightly painted bedroom in Indiana, many miles and years away from that night in Virginia, the Colonel and Mrs. Ford swayed to a lost song, weeping together at how little difference time made.”

The story couldn’t end on a more perfectly wistful note.

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