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.