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The Final Confession of Mabel Stark

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark

4.7 23
by Robert Hough

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"You can't mix tigers and husbands. And, anyhow, I prefer the tigers." — Mabel Stark

Mabel Stark was one of the most famous women of her time, the centre-ring finale act of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus in the 1920s and 1930s when circus was the most popular form of entertainment in North America. Barely five feet tall, blonde,


"You can't mix tigers and husbands. And, anyhow, I prefer the tigers." — Mabel Stark

Mabel Stark was one of the most famous women of her time, the centre-ring finale act of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus in the 1920s and 1930s when circus was the most popular form of entertainment in North America. Barely five feet tall, blonde, lithe, dressed in her trademark skintight white leather jumpsuit, Stark made her mark in a man's world. She was brazen, courageous to the point of self-destruction, obsessed with tigers, addicted to drugs, and sexually eccentric. Her relationship with the big cats moulded her career, her marriages, her concept of joy.

Rob Hough has created a compelling fictional autobiography of Mabel Stark, leaping from the documents of her life into the mysteries of her heart, and into the carnival world of the travelling circus. As the novel opens, the year is 1968. Mabel Stark is turning eighty years old and is about to lose her job at JungleWorld, a circus-cum-zoo in northern California — the new owners don't appreciate her legendary status. Haunted by memories, she looks back on her life, her escapades and tragedies, her love affairs with tigers and with men. She's spent almost thirty years basically hiding out as a result "of doing the worst thing one person can do to another" and she decides that she has only one task left before her time comes. Mabel Stark wants to make her final confession.

Facts about Mabel Stark:
— Mabel Stark was the first person to wrestle an adult tiger for a paying audience
— the first to teach a black panther to ride the back of a tiger
— the first to train Sumatran tigers
— Stark did not neuter, beat or bully her cats, and her methods are used even today
— She survived more than a dozen maulings
— Her life story was optioned by Paramount

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“First novelist Roberty Hough pulls together fact and fiction to unfurl a life that invites sheer, slack-jawed fascination. High brings this fiery, bawdy and wildly courageous perfomer vividly and intimately to life and in the process narrates a life story too unbelievable to be anything but true…In this book, [Hough] has created one of the most remarkablem sympathetic and finely rendered characters I have come across anywhere. He gives Stark a distinctive, believable first-person voice with the earthy, no-nonsense attitude one cold expect only from a woman who had spent her life criss-crossing the continent in the company of freaks, grifters, thieves and wild animals…No one’s life sotry — not even Mabel Stark’s — could be so compelling without the deft hadn of a pretty great writer, Robert Hough is himself a very impressive act.” —Lynn Coady, Time
USA Today
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark is one of the most rollicking, good-time books of the year. — Virginia Holman
The New Yorker
The circus has long been a refuge for society’s misfits; for some, it is the inherent danger of the acts that offers a welcome escape from reality. Faith—the heroine of the first novel by the late Amanda Davis, Wonder When You'll Miss Me—runs away from her high school, her mother, and the police and remakes herself as Annabelle, the elephant-dung mucker for a traveling circus troupe. Psychologically disjointed (she is trailed at all times by her imaginary alter ego), Annabelle seeks solace in acrobatics. “I wanted to tell her about the woman on the trapeze. How I’d held my breath and how my heart had pounded,” Davis writes. “How I’d seen a whole world up there in the air, and the one down here had disappeared.”

Ascension, a novel by Steve Galloway, focuses on the travails of a wire walker named Salvo Ursari. As a child, his parents were killed by Transylvanian villagers; forty-five years later, during the family act on the high wire, his twin daughters plunge to their death. But while Ursari is on the wire, all that matters is the next step. “Immediately everything receded. All his fears, all his memories, all he loved and all he loathed,” Galloway writes.

The eponymous heroine (based on a real-life tiger trainer) of Robert Hough’s The Final Confession of Mabel Stark joins the circus after escaping from a psychiatric ward, where she was committed for refusing to fulfill her wifely duties. For Mabel, life with her big cats reminds her that happiness always has its dark side: “No matter how well things’re going, you always know it’s only a matter of time before a claw catches, or a tooth snags, or a forepaw lashes, and your contentment feels bearable again.” (Andrea Thompson)
The New York Times
The novel's captivating depiction of circus life is matched by Hough's furious plotting -- every few pages bring the hint of a secret, a riled tiger, a handsome stranger, a career twist or the surprise reappearance of a past friend or foe. — Laura Jamison
The Washington Post
It's no surprise that Robert Hough's rollicking debut novel, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, has already been snapped up by Hollywood. The book, a fictional memoir of the greatest female tiger trainer of all time, is filled to the brim with cinematic moments and larger-than-life characters. Mabel Stark is the largest of them all, a nurse turned stripper turned tiger trainer who performed in a series of death-defying cat acts during her heyday in the 1920s. On stage, Mabel was known for her charm and daring, and her personal life was no less adventurous. She married six times -- once for love, five times for convenience -- but her most enduring affair was with Rajah, the 500-lb. Bengal tiger she raised from birth. — Jenny Offill
Publishers Weekly
This ribald, rough-hewn debut novel by a prize-winning Canadian writer is based on the flamboyant career of Mabel Stark, arguably the greatest (certainly the greatest female) tiger trainer of all time. Recounted as Stark is turning 80 in 1968, the faux memoir follows her path to superstardom through the 1910s and '20s as she learns to tame tigers and men, and finally tours with the famous Ringling Brothers Circus. Stark, born Mary Haynie, is a teenage Louisville, Ky., nurse, when she is committed to a mental hospital after rebelling against her brutish husband's insensitivity. Aided by a smitten psychiatrist, she escapes to Tennessee, where she becomes Little Egypt, a headliner belly dancer with the Great Parker Carnival. Another marriage and another gig as a "cooch dancer" follow, until she is rescued at the age of 23 by Al G. Barnes, a carny pal, lately owner of a small circus. When the show's animal trainer falls for her, he teaches her how to work with tigers and a new career is launched. Famous for the act in which she wrestles Rajah, a 500-pound Bengal tiger she's raised from a cub, she is also known for her brazenness, multiple marriages ("My men. Whew. Had a slew of them") and black leather jumpsuit. Rich in the atmosphere of circus life, this graphic, slangy fictional reminiscence also offers some surprising, deft metafictional touches. Agent, Ron Eckel, Westwood Creative Artists. (Apr.) Forecast: Hough's debut is a natural sell to fans of Carter Beats the Devil and should attract an even wider readership if the film version-set to star Kate Winslet-comes off. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As Mabel Stark, the first female tiger trainer in circus history, is turning 80 in 1968, she begins to recount her flamboyant career. Committed to a mental hospital for rebelling against her husband, young Mabel escapes and joins the Great Parker Carnival as a belly dancer. She marries again and is rescued this time by a pal who owns a small circus where she learns to work with tigers when the show's animal trainer falls for her. She endures life's inevitable ups and downs, goes through more husbands, and eventually becomes a circus superstar with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, where she wrestled a 500-pound tiger. Hough based this book on details from Stark's journals and letters, weaving together fact and his fiction to produce a humorous yet compelling story. Betty Bobbitt's reading helps set the atmosphere for this entertaining tale. Owing to the adult nature of some of the content, this audiobook is recommended for appropriate collections.-Denise A. Garofalo, Astor Home for Children, Rhinebeck, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A marvelous debut, winner of a Canadian literary prize, about the life and amazing adventures of the greatest female tiger trainer in circus history are narrated with delicious humor and warmth. The story's presented as the somewhat discordant autobiography-in-progress ("there'll be times when I take liberties with this thing called order") of "Mabel Stark." Born Mary Haynie in Kentucky to a family of luckless tobacco farmers, Mabel is orphaned early in life, trained as a nurse, and married young (to a patient who's particularly needy sexually). She recounts the ordeal of the mental hospital that husband Dimitri Aganosticus has her committed to, her escape and experiences (as a "cooch dancer") with a traveling carnival, another failed marriage, and the discovery of her true calling with the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus-where she learns to "work" the big cats, marries lion tamer Louis Roth, and meets the real love of her life: a stunningly beautiful Bengal tiger cub that grows into her 550-pound partner, Rajah, in a world-famous "wrestling act." Tales of success and fame with Ringling Brothers are juxtaposed with grimmer accounts of Mabel's declining years at a moribund animal park ("Jungleland"). All, though, is told in a vivid and cantankerous comic voice (reminiscent of the voice of Jack Crabb in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man) alive with self-deprecating wit and truculent cussedness. The Ringling years are brilliantly detailed, as is the story of Mabel's happy but cruelly brief fifth marriage to part-Indian ex-con "ménage boss" Art Rooney. The descriptions of animals and of in-the-ring routines are equally irresistible. And Rajah is a glorious character: a regal presence, given toadolescent moodiness, with a forceful personality and a very considerable sexual presence. Just about perfect. One of the most entertaining novels in many a year. Film rights to Tailor-Made Films, UK

Product Details

Random House of Canada, Limited
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Athenian Tailor

He is: tall, knobby-kneed, thin as a quarter pole, in his shop on Seventh Street, craned over his tailoring bench, applying white piping to a vest, when the pain in his lower right abdomen becomes a searing white-hot agony. He moans and keels over his work table, clutching at himself. This causes Mr. Billetti, the produce vendor in the market stall next door, to come running. After a moment of panic (arms flapping, hopping on one spot, saying, “Holy-a cow, holy-a moly”), Mr. Billetti throws his groaning friend onto an empty wooden cart, laying him on the flatbed ordinarily reserved for rutabagas and eggplants. He rickshaws Dimitri all the way to St. Mary’s, bursts through the doors, and cries “Help! I needa help!” before collapsing at the toes of the Virgin Mary.

Ten minutes later, they scalpaled Dimitri open and removed what was left of his appendix, which by that point wasn’t much, a squishy burst purple thing the size of a prune split lengthwise. Then they wheeled him into Ward 4 and parked him halfway down the right aisle, asleep and wearing a white flannel hospital gown. After about a half-hour or so, I wandered over and took my first long gander. He was lean and sharply boned and what the other trainee nurses called handsome, with his fine nose and wavy hair and olive-toned skin. Even unconscious he wore a smirk; later I figured out he wore it so much during the day his face had learned to fall that way natural when he was asleep.

As the poison spread through his body, he plumped up and turned the colour of a carrot. His hands looked like they’d burst if you pricked them. He slept around the clock, the only painkillers in 1907 being the kind that put you out like a light. On day three, I happened to hear two doctors discussing what all that stuff circulating through his body was likely going to do to him. “Either it’ll kill him,” the older one said, “or it won’t. I suppose we’ll have to wait around and see.”

After three or four days, it became obvious Dimitri was choosing the second option, for his bloating eased, his skin returned to a colour more salad oil than carrot and he didn’t look so mortuary-still when asleep. While emptying a chamber pot near his bed one morning, I took a moment to look him over, fascinated by the way his chest hair curled like baby fingers over the collar of his gown. Suddenly he opened his eyes and without bothering to focus said, “What is it your name, beautiful girl?”

Now this had a discombobulating effect on me, for not only was he the first person since my father had died to pay me a compliment, but he’d come out of what was practically a stone-cold coma to do it. I looked at him, perplexed at how he’d managed this, seeing as most people come awake so groggy and confused it takes them an hour to remember which way is up. I finally put it down to instinct, like the way you blink when onion vapour gets in your eye. When I turned and left I could feel his eyes struggling to get a bead on my crinolined backside.

“Maybe next time you stay longer,” he croaked, “maybe next time, beautiful girl....”

That afternoon he asked for scissors, a bowl of hot water, a razor, a towel and a mirror, all of which I delivered when I was good and ready. Over the next half-hour he hacked at, and then trimmed, and then razored, the beard he’d grown over the past six days. When he was finished he looked at himself, closely, angling the mirror a hundred different ways so he could examine every nook and cranny, including the one burrowing deep and gopher-hole-like into the middle of his chin. “Aaaaaah,” he exclaimed, “now I am feeling like new man!” Only his moustache remained, pencil thin and dark as squid ink.

Soon he was getting up and roaming around and starting conversations with other patients. Didn’t matter those on the receiving end were weak and pallid and in no shape at all to hold up their end; Dimitri would sit and share his opinions on his country, or the tailoring business, or the hospital food, all of which he thought could be better. (He was the sort of man who smiled when complaining.) When he wasn’t chatting, he was flirting with the nurses, both trainee and regular. Once, I was having a drink at the water fountain near the end of the ward when I felt a hand alight on my right hip and give it a little polish. Course, it was Dimitri. I spun around and slapped him and told him he’d better holster those mitts of his if he wanted to keep them. From then on, every time he passed me he’d look like we shared a secret–a secret he’d let me in on when and if it pleased him.

All this fraternization infuriated our head nurse, the jowly and old-before-her-time Miss Weatherspoon, no doubt because she was the only one he didn’t turn beet-red with attention. She’d order him back to bed, only to have him grin, shrug his narrow shoulders and pretend he couldn’t speak English. It was a show of insolence that perked my ears, for I’d had my problems right off with Miss Weatherspoon, my not being the world’s greatest fan of people in love with their own authority. One day when Dimitri was up and roaming and responding to her bossiness in Greek, she grew flustered and decided to complain to one of the doctors. I happened to be walking by and saw her, salmon coloured, motioning with a crooked finger, face muscles tight as fencing wire. “But you said bedrest only” was the bit I heard. This caused the doctor, an older man named Jeffries, to roll his eyes and say, “Oh, all right, Beatrice, periodic bedrest if it’ll make you happy.” This put Miss Weatherspoon in an even worse mood than usual, which is saying something.

Suddenly everything needed doing all at once. Worked off our feet, we were. I got sore joints from scrubbing body parts. Two of the other nurses–lucky ones, I mean, with options–up and quit that afternoon. Right near the end of shift, Miss Weatherspoon decided Dimitri needed a sponge bath, so she ordered another trainee nurse named Victoria Richmond to do the job. Now, at that time it was popular for girls from good families to have a stint at nursing too, mostly because it gave them something to do while waiting to bag a husband. Victoria was such a girl: sixteen years old, skin like alabaster, blond ringlets, father a tobacco baron from the right side of Louisville, had a home to go to at night instead of the dorm for live-aways. In other words, she was the kind of girl I had trouble seeing eye to eye with, for every time Miss Weatherspoon told her to do something she’d lower her eyes, curtsey and say, “Of course, ma’am. Right away.”

She did so this time as well, after which she turned on her heel, practically a pirouette it was, and went off to fetch a bowl and her favourite pink bathing sponge. When she reached Dimitri’s bed she pulled the curtain and stepped inside, at which point I got bored and started doing something else. About a minute went by before me and everyone else on the ward, patient or staff, got interested again. And I mean real interested, for there was a screech, sounded like metal being sawed, and then Miss Richmond sprinted all girly toward the doors, elbows tight against the body, knees pressed together, lower legs windmilling sideways. Her sponge was still gripped in one hand, and as she ran it left a series of watery drips on the floor. When she was gone it looked like an oversized slug had passed by.

When the commotion was over, Miss Weatherspoon marched to Dimitri’s bed and turtled her head through the split in the curtain. We all watched. She extracted herself and stood, her face featureless as a plank. A thought crossed her mind–you could practically see it passing, as her eyes slendered and her features sharpened and the edges of her mouth crept ever so slightly in the direction of the ceiling.

“Miss Haynie!” she bellowed.

I moved fast enough so’s not to be insubordinate but definitely not running like Victoria Richmond would have.

“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon?”

"It seems Miss Richmond has had to take her leave. I’d like you to complete the patient’s sponge bath.”

“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon.”

“Oh ... and Mary?” She hesitated, savouring the moment. “If you enjoy your employment here, I suggest you be as thorough as possible. For unless I miss my guess, this patient is not the ... how shall I put this? This patient is not the cleanest of individuals, particulary in regard to his daily ablutions. His private daily ablutions. Do I make myself clear? I’ll inspect him when you’re finished.”

“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon,” I said again, this time stressing the part of her name that announced to the world she was unmarried and thick at the ankles and not about to get younger anytime soon. Truth was, I was annoyed and mightily so, for I barely had an inkling of what she was driving at, Miss Weatherspoon being the sort of woman who never said what she meant for fear of breaking some social convention invented so recently she hadn’t yet heard about it. Instead, she went at things in circles, erasing her tracks with words that did little more than eat up time. Fortunately, with people like that body language generally makes up for any vaguenesses; the gloating leer plastered across her face informed me this task was lewd and distasteful and intended solely to show who was boss. My only defence was to pretend it didn’t faze me in the least, so with as much calm as was musterable I turned and went looking for my sponge.

Meet the Author

Robert Hough has made his name writing narrative-driven nonfiction about characters "who live beyond our culture's conception of normalcy," for such magazines as Saturday Night and Toronto Life. Circus life in general and Mabel Stark in particular are tailor-made subjects for his first novel, in that the circus was a travelling sanctuary for misfits, waifs and strays — including Mabel Stark.

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The Final Confession of Mabel Stark 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book, though long, is awesome and never lost my interest! It is the story of the first female tiger trainer and the characters and storytelling will enchant you and hold on till the very end. At some points I laughed, some cried, and sometimes I felt as if I really was there with the great Mabel Stark, as cliqued as that sounds. A great book for anyone who loves historical fiction, animals, the circus, or just a great story!
Guest More than 1 year ago
read this book - it's such a wonderfully creative and entertaining story - i got so lost in this novel that i forgot it was a novel - mabel is so believably defined - it is a truly good book
Guest More than 1 year ago
that is going to be extremely popular once people hear about the movie - don't wait that long - it's so well written not only am i writing a review (which i've never done before) but the voice of mabel seems to ring so 'true' that you forget that this work is really a fictionalized account of her life written by some 40 year-old canadian dude - it really is quite entertaining!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put it down -- a great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Growing_rocks More than 1 year ago
A great summer read. It is an interesting book that you can pick up and put down, start & stop reading. I did enjoy reading it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Such a great tribute to all the greatest and first entertainment in America. Loved Mabel and all the characterizations of the others who peopled this work. Thank you and kudos to the author.
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Age:16/ Gender:female/ height:4' 10"/ weight:80 pounds/ appearance: red shoulder length hair, deep seablue eyes a blue tunic, brown pants, brown boots, brown belt and a blue cloak. She has wolf ears on top of her head and a tail through a hole in her pants. She speaks in an english accent./ weapons: a recurve bow with a quiver jammed full of about a hundred arrows, a simple double edged sword and a simple metal kite shaped shield.
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