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Praise for QUEEN OF THE AIR
"[A] moving and deep portrait of two central figures in a largely forgotten chapter of Americana.”
“[A] tale told in broad, bold swathes of primary color, like the gigantic posters that commemorate the big top’s golden days, yet as with any good book, delight awaits in the details, as well…
[I]rresistible…thrilling…strikes just the right balance between the intimate and the showmanly. In addition to the mystery and glamour conjured around their acts, Jensen leaves you with an awed respect for Leitzel and Codona’s almost perverse devotion to their craft and to the circus life.”
“Dean Jensen has pulled off an amazing temporal triple play. He's told a story that's completely of its time, yet often resonates with ours, and in its tragic dimension feels as timeless as a Greek myth…Jensen re-creates the world of circus life so vividly a reader's almost tempted to check the ground for elephant droppings… Like a gifted ringmaster, Jensen knows what every performer, major or minor, in this show can do, and seems to bring each one on at just the right time. While Leitzel, Codona and their circle may have almost passed from public memory, Jensen brings them back to the center ring in his book.”
—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"For anyone who knows that stardust can be a tarnished and magic is an illusion, Queen of the Air absolutely soars."
"[S]hocking and heartbreaking... Artfully choreographed, this act is sure to draw big audiences."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“The true story of Leitzel, a circus aerialist who was the Evelyn Nesbitt of her time, is mesmerizing—part fable, part history and part dream. Meticulously researched, QUEEN OF THE AIR reads like a fine novel.”
—Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and What We Saw Last Night
“Daring the devil with consummate grace is what many of the circus arts are all about, aerially or in the ground game. These two nonpareil performers—flyers both—ultimately crashed, but not before putting on a glistering show.”
—Edward Hoagland, author of Children are Diamonds
Dosta had rarely spoken to Nellie before, except to issue commands. His relationship toward her became even more remote after the assault. He showed no signs of remorse and seemed to view the molestation as another demonstration that she was fully his chattel.
Nellie ached with homesickness for her mother and four brothers and sisters. But she sank into even deeper despair after the attack. She became preoccupied with one thought: she was going to burn eternally in hell.
Almost from the time Nellie Pelikan started walking, she had lived the life of a nomad. She had been an equestrienne and acrobat in Eduard Pelikan’s Family Circus, a show operated by her father. Because she was on the move seven or eight months a year, her schooling was irregular. But winters, when the Pelikans were back in Breslau, she was enrolled in a school operated by Polish nuns. Because her native language was not Polish but German, she had trouble absorbing the lessons of arithmetic and history. Often the nun placed the dunce cap on her head and ordered her to sit on a stool in front of the class.
If Nellie had trouble concentrating on the secular subjects, though, she was attentive when the sister cleared the classroom of the boys and preached to the girls about the evils of fornication. A girl could commit no greater sin than to allow herself to be touched by another in her private areas, the nun would lecture. The sister would then open an oversize copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and, standing before the classroom desks, turn the pages to the illustrations showing wailing sinners in the fiery pits of hell. Some of the children in the pictures seemed to Nellie to be no older than she was.
“This will be your forever if you disobey God’s commandment to remain chaste,” the nun would warn. “The sinners you see here are still in hell today, and they will be there tomorrow and when all of you are old and gray. Once you enter hell, there is no escape. These sinners are there for the eternities.”
The pictures of the sinners stayed in Nellie’s mind. She recalled them in all their vivid details after Dosta’s attack.
Nellie was five when she had started appearing in the circus ring. She was, from the start, the star of Eduard Pelikan’s Family Circus. She was also Eduard’s great pride. With her legs and arms akimbo, she balanced head-to-head atop her father. And as he rode a galloping horse Roman-style around and around the outdoor ring, she was perched on his shoulders, juggling oranges.
Each year, as Nellie grew older, she became more accomplished. By the time she was eight or nine, her performances were dazzling to behold. Her platform was the broad back of a loping white horse that endlessly circumscribed great rings in grassy fields and the squares of towns where Eduard Pelikan’s Family Circus appeared. She threw cartwheels and forward and backward somersaults on the back of the smoothly cantering horse. She finished her turn in the manner of a prima ballerina, posing en pointe and seemingly defying all laws of gravity as her four-legged stage continued on and on in its rounds.
Nellie was joined by other siblings in the shows. Her younger sisters, Toni and Tina, appeared in the ring with Eduard, who juggled the pair with his feet. Adolph, the youngest of the Pelikan children, bounded high into the air from a springboard and then tossed somersaults before alighting on his feet. Julia Pelikan, matriarch of the family, had been a trapeze artist in her girlhood in Bohemia. But because there seemed never a time when she was not either nursing a baby or about to give birth to a new one, her appearances in the ring were limited now to singing and clowning.
Once the circus came upon a hamlet where Eduard sensed it could attract even a small audience, he would seek out a playing area. Adolph and his brother, Horace, would unhitch the horse from the wagon and brush away the animal’s road dust. Next, as Nellie and the other children were changing into their costumes, the boys walked around the village, banging on drums to let everyone know a circus was about to begin its show. At the conclusion of the performances, Julia and the children would weave among the spectators with tins in their hands, seeking donations. Not all of the proceeds came in the form of coins. Some villagers paid with loaves of bread or live chickens and rabbits. Because the countryside through which the circus traveled was sparsely populated, the family was never rewarded with big purses.
Still, the summers of trouping were happy times. The family enjoyed the adventure of traveling to new places. There was fishing and swimming in the streams almost every day. Most of all, the Pelikans considered themselves richly blessed because they were always together. Nights, after they were at rest from their travels and performances, they would all gather around a fire. Eduard would then dream out loud about someday when the family circus would have its own big tent, travel by train, and play only the bigger cities. His ambition would never be realized.
Eduard had been troubled for years with arthritis, a condition aggravated not just by the sprains and broken bones he had suffered over thirty years as a gymnast and professional strongman but also from decades of working and sleeping outdoors in weather that sometimes was icy and rainy. The arthritis worsened each year, and, in time, he also began suffering from rheumatic fever. There were days when he felt that a red-hot coal was glowing inside his chest, and, after the 1889 touring season, he was forced to quit trouping.
No one was sadder than Nellie. Although quiet and shy in most situations, she reveled in performing and hearing the cheers and applause of the always amazed audiences. She also exulted in the visible signs of pride her father had shown after each of her performances. What troubled her most about the collapse of Eduard Pelikan’s Family Circus, though, was how its demise changed her father. He sank into depression and became snappish to her and the other children, and even to Julia.
When the family returned to its quarters in a tenement in Breslau in the fall of 1889, Eduard rolled the circus wagon into the backyard, removed its spoked wheels, and painted over the lettering on its side advertising eduard pelikan’s family circus. The wagon that had been the family’s summer home was converted into the quarters for a small cabinetmaking shop. Eduard sold the horse that had been in service to the family for dray and ring performances.
Willy Dosta must have been surprised at the condition in which he found Eduard in early 1890 when he paid a call at the Pelikan home and saw him in the cabinet shop. By then, Pelikan was bent forward at the waist like a burned matchstick. He needed a cane in each hand to walk.
From the time he was a boy, Eduard had been a saltimbanque, a member of a nameless tribe of eternally wandering vagabonds without nationality who lived under the sun and stars, and roved everywhere with trained bears and satchels filled with magic props, or maybe no possessions at all except for an ability to eat fire, swallow swords, or walk ropes.
Spring was just starting its greening. As always at that time, Pelikan was stirred by some unappeasable, almost instinctive urge to again take flight with the family circus. He would not be going out this year, though. He felt like a bird whose wings had been clipped.
He held his hands out for Dosta to see. They were curled into ugly claws.
“I used to be able to throw down an ox with these,” he declared. “Now look at them. I can hardly lift a soup spoon to my mouth. How does a man feed a family with hands like these?”
Because his earnings as a cabinetmaker were skimpy, Julia helped out by taking in laundry, including the bloody aprons of a neighborhood butcher. Late at night, while their children slept, she and her husband talked about the need to place the youngest of them in an orphanage.
Dosta recruited the children for his circus by approaching large families that were having trouble feeding their broods. He and Eduard had never been anything more than acquaintances, but as the operators of wagon circuses that snaked through the forests and rural arcadias, their paths had crossed over the years. Dosta regarded Nellie as the most naturally talented child performer he had ever seen. When he learned that Eduard’s failing health had forced him to retire the family show, he saw an opportunity.
The true life story of a circus performer. Her rise to fame is fascinating, as is her high profile relationship with another circus performer. A very well written, unconventional story. Highly recommended.
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Posted June 11, 2013
Queen of the Air, A True Story of Love & Tragedy at the Circus, by Dean Jensen
Lacking any real knowledge, I always thought “circus folk” of the last century were thought of about as highly as the shimmy-shake dancers writhing away in the back tents. So this book really opened my eyes to entertainment “royalty” - swinging high in the air, constantly pushing themselves to the limit, while living off the adoration of their ever fickle fans. This is the story of Leitzel and Alfredo Codona, the Queen and King of the many circus circuits of the late 19th to 20th centuries. I could smell the roasted peanuts and often exhaled a sigh of fear and/or relief reading the miraculous tricks performed high in the big top. I’ll admit to the occasional blush crossing my cheeks as the performers were described in their finely decorated athletic garb. Flying free through the air, who could imagine all the rules and limitations they faced on the ground? It is amazing performers ever married with all the parents, managers, impersonal living quarters and circus detectives driving them apart at every turn! What a treat to be taken back in time and see the show through such adoring eyes, close media scrutiny and the performers’ own personal insights. All that suffering to be the best and most dazzling. This was a lively and informative read!
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Posted August 23, 2013
I like books that put me right in the story. This one does. I kept googleing names and was surprised to see a video of Lillian Leitzel doing her one arm flips over & over. Do yourself a favor & join the circus for 300 pages. You won't regret it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 29, 2013
Posted July 4, 2013
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Posted September 4, 2013
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