Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South

truevineThat’s a lot of subtitle, no? And all those subtitles don’t even get into the circus sideshows.

This book first captured my interest because I grew up just a few miles from Truevine, the Franklin County, Virginia, community where the two brothers from the subtitle spent their earliest years. It was in the Truevine tobacco fields, Muse family lore said, that George and Willie Muse were discovered by a circus scout around the turn of the century:

The white man found them working, alone and unsupervised, two snow-white field hands, no more than seventy pounds and four feet tall, dressed in flour-sack clothes and turbans jerry-rigged out of rags and string. As he approached, stepping over the tobacco rows, the boys stood and nodded respectfully, as they’d been taught to do with white men.

When they removed their head coverings at his request, the man gasped. Their hair was kinky, and it was golden.

It was money in his pocket.

George and Willie were African American boys with albinism, making them a valuable find for a circus sideshow. And so they were taken away, given the names Eko and Iko, and dubbed Darwin’s missing links or ambassadors from Mars. They were told their mother, Harriett Muse, was dead, but she kept looking for them, finding them years later when the circus came to her new home in the segregated city of Roanoke, Virginia, and she dared to enter the tent to see them and get them back. Later, they returned to the sideshow life under a contract that promised a steady income, part of which would provide for their mother. But, times being as they were, managers cheated them whenever they could, and Harriett Muse went to court again and again to ensure her sons received what they earned.

Journalist Beth Macy, who was my writing teacher when I lived in Roanoke, became interested in the Muse brothers not long after she first moved to Roanoke in the late 1980s, but their great-niece, Nancy Saunders, was understandably protective of them and their story. At that time, Willie Muse was still alive and under her care, and she didn’t want to bring back the crowds that once treated him as a curiosity and a freak. It was only after Willie Muse died that she agreed to let Macy write a newspaper article and, later, this book.

When I saw Macy speak at the book’s launch last month, she said that she wanted to put the brothers’ story in context, and, for me, that was one of the most valuable aspects of this book. The circus story is interesting, and Macy discusses the problematic elements of sideshows without denying the reality that, for some performers, sideshows provided the only good income they’d be likely to earn (that’s if they were paid, which not all were). But the large number of characters and the many different companies were hard to keep track of—and I wasn’t all that motivated to work hard at it.

For me, the book’s strength is in the exploration of the lives of African Americans in Virginia during the 20th century. The Muse brothers were born into a sharecropping community, educational opportunities were scant, and the work was grueling. Harriett, and later Willie and George, lived in Roanoke, one of the most segregated cities of the South. This was all history that took place right in my backyard, but I never learned much about it. I knew there was segregation, I assumed there were lynchings, and I saw racism with my own eyes, but I didn’t know the extent of it. Despite being born after slavery was abolished, the Muses lived in what amounted to slavery, and they were far from alone in that. Macy listened to the stories that are hard to hear—and no doubt hard for the tellers to tell—and brings them into the light.

For the most part, Macy keeps herself out of the story, only talking about herself when discussing specific challenges of researching this story or, in a few instances, her own personal reactions to things she learned. She focuses instead on the Muses, the people who knew them, and others whose life experiences touched those involved in the story. Unfortunately, the brothers are both dead, and many of the records about their early years are sketchy and contradict some of the history the family passed down. Macy notes the disputes without taking a position on exactly what happened. There’s an extensive notes section in the back (50 pages for a book of just over 400 pages), so it’s possible for those who want a deeper dive to search out the sources.

As a reader, I did sometimes feel the absence of Willie and George, and I wish there had been a way to know what they were thinking and how they felt about their lives. This book offers glimpses—Willie’s photo of his mother by his bed and his sharp words about his former manager—but there’s still a gap. History has so many gaps, and sometimes they can’t be filled entirely, but there’s value in doing what we can and learning what we can so we can better understand our past and thus do better for our futures.

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10 Responses to Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South

  1. It boggles the mind that this actually happened. I’m intrigued by this book but a little bit leery because it’s all so tragic.

    • Teresa says:

      The good thing is, though, that they came out on top. Their mother fought and fought and fought again, every time the money stopped. So it’s a story with a lot of tragedy, but a lot to be inspired by.

  2. Ed says:

    It is interesting what your review has to say about sideshows. Some time ago I read a book about the Elephant Man, and apparently he was quite happy being in a sideshow, because it gave him steady work and income. Obviously most of the other details of his story are different to this one.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I think it’s interesting to consider what people are willing to do when their options are limited–and how people can easily take advantage of them.

  3. aartichapati says:

    I agree that we often glaze over sharecropping in the US, and how it was a direct result of ending slavery but wanting to keep cheap labor.

    I think I would also be frustrated not to know the two key characters of the book better, especially as the subtitle is pretty clear about who the focus of the book seems to be on.

    • Teresa says:

      I think Macy did the best that could be done. She talked to a lot of their relatives and people who knew them. It really brings home how important it is to get stories from this period recorded now, while there are still people alive with firsthand knowledge. Another generation, and this story would be nearly lost altogether.

  4. Couldn’t get into Macy’s book Factory Man, but I’m going to give this one a try, based on your review.

  5. Christy says:

    I was curious as to how you would like this book. I first heard about it from you and you said it was getting some attention. Soon after that, I saw it displayed fairly prominently in Barnes and Noble in Tyson’s Corner (prominence may be due to the Virginia setting of the book?). In any case, I do feel like I should read more books about the Jim Crow era. The historical context aspect of the book sounds interesting.

    • Teresa says:

      I really liked that she set framed this as a Jim Crow story rather than just a circus story. That gave it some value and interest the circus story alone wouldn’t have had. And I wonder if the circus angle will draw in some readers who’d never pick up a book focused on race.

      I just picked up a book called Blood at the Root about the racial cleansing of a Georgia County after hearing the author at Book Riot Live. I’m looking forward to reading that.

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