Under the Big Top: A Season with the Circus [NOOK Book]


Both a great American adventure and a rare entry into asheltered world, Under the Big Top describes one man's pursuit of every child's fantasy: running away to join the circus. Bruce Feiler's unforgettable year as a clown will forever change your view of one of the world's oldest art forms and remind you of how dreams can go horribly wrong -- and then miraculously come true.

Read More Show Less
... See more details below
Under the Big Top: A Season with the Circus

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK
  • NOOK HD/HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
BN.com price


Both a great American adventure and a rare entry into asheltered world, Under the Big Top describes one man's pursuit of every child's fantasy: running away to join the circus. Bruce Feiler's unforgettable year as a clown will forever change your view of one of the world's oldest art forms and remind you of how dreams can go horribly wrong -- and then miraculously come true.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
After several years of work and travel abroad, Feiler (Learning to Bow) decided that joining the circus would be a good way to study America, as well as live a long-deferred childhood dream. He was accepted as a clown and spent the eight-month 1993 season with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, which plays the South and Northeast. With performers from more than a dozen countries, this troupe was truly a melting pot, though most had picked up some of the racism they encountered here. Far from conforming to the image of degenerates, the circus people the author met led rather conventional lives within their restricted world. Feiler admits the humor of clowns is ``silly,'' and few readers are likely to share his admiration for acts like that of a young woman who juggles while hanging by her hair. Generally, however, this warm and affectionate memoir is pleasantly entertaining. Author tour. (June)
Chattanooga Free Press
New York Times
New York Times Book Review
“Bruce Feiler is a keen and thoughtful observer...he forces circus goers to see the familiar spectacles anew.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A colorful, sometimes unsettling, pageant of circus life.”
The New Yorker
Praise for UNDER THE BIG TOP“A stunning collective portrait of an ingrown community with its own history, hierarchy, and traditions.”
“A gritty, haunting story.”
Christian Science Monitor
Denver Post
New York Post
“A mud and sweat-filled, but ultimately loving portrait of the circus.”
Indianapolis Star
“As irresistible as cotton candy, as attention-grabbing as the death-defying trapeze act.”
Princeton Times
“Spellbinding...captivating...truly touching.”
People Magazine
"A gritty, haunting story."
Douglas Brinkley
“Writing beautifully...Bruce Feiler penetrates the heart and soul of circus life with such stark clarity.”
Jim Foster
“A three ring triumph...the best book ever written about the circus.”
“A gritty, haunting story.”
From Barnes & Noble
What's a traveling circus really like? After spending a year as a clown with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros., the author offers this unique look at the circus from the back lot--its performers, its menagerie of animals, its triumphant moments, & its darker aspects.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061856709
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 892,356
  • File size: 513 KB

Meet the Author

Bruce Feiler

Bruce Feiler writes a column on contemporary families for the New York Times and is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including The Council of Dads. He is the host of several series on PBS, a popular lecturer, and a frequent commentator on radio and television. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and twin daughters.


Bruce Feiler has turned his curiosity into a career, writing on topics from clowning to Christianity with a sense of wonder, humor and inquisitiveness. Most recently he has become known as both theological tourist and tour guide, exploring Biblical history and its physical and cultural roots in the 2001 bestseller Walking the Bible and in 2002's Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.

Feiler had begun his career writing about another culture with Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan, a funny and enlightening account of his year as an English teacher in a small Japanese town. The book continues to be embraced by those who want a better understanding of Japanese culture, one spiked with the humor of its alien gaijin observer. Feiler depicted another hallowed educational system in Looking for Class: Days and Nights at Oxford and Cambridge, an account of the author's experiences as a graduate student at Cambridge. Feiler's books educate, but their appeal also lies in the discoveries he makes as someone entering a new situation with natural preconceptions, then having those ideas upended by reality.

Kicking the fish-out-of-water theme up a notch, Feiler joined the circus for Under the Big Top: A Season with the Circus. Here, Feiler showed the journalistic enterprise and mettle that would later figure into his bold journeys through Biblical territory. Spending a year performing as a clown on the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, Feiler provides a surprising look at the show, its performers and the often seamy underside that accompanies circus life.

Feiler jumped into yet another milieu with his look at the country music industry, Dreaming Out Loud. Presenting an insider's view of Nashville made possible by his access as a journalist to stars such as Garth Brooks and Wynonna Judd, Feiler puts together of picture of starmaking -- including in his profiles a young talent named Wade Hayes -- and the machinery that runs modern country music. As with his other books, Feiler describes how his notions (he hated country music before Brooks made him a fan) have evolved along with his subject.

Feiler is also an award-winning food writer and journalist who has written articles for major publications such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the New Republic. But he gained a larger audience when he took on his biggest topic yet: the Bible. "Over more than a decade of living and working abroad I found that ideas, and places, became more real to me when I experienced them firsthand....In the Middle East, the Bible is not some abstraction," Feiler wrote in an essay on Barnes & Noble.com about the origins of Walking the Bible. "It's a living, breathing entity unencumbered by the sterilization of time. That was the Bible I wanted to know, and almost immediately I realized that the only way to find it was to walk along those lines myself."

In taking that walk, Feiler vastly expanded his audience and found himself a subject he would stick with. He was already working on a sequel to the book when September 11 redirected him toward one aspect of his earlier studies: the religious father figure of Abraham. He set out to find hope in this binding tie among Judaism, Christianity and Islam; but found, again, a different picture than the one he anticipated painting. Feiler's education is ours; without him asking the questions, we might not have new insights on cultural fixtures that already seem so familiar.

Good To Know

How he wrote his first book: Feiler appropriated sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov's self-description as an "explainaholic," then explained in an interview with a country music web site how he came to write his first book: "I wrote a series of letters home [from Japan] of the ‘you’re not going to believe what happened to me today' variety. When I came back home, everywhere I went people said to me, ‘I really liked your letters,’ and I would say, ‘Do I know you?’. It turns out that these letters had been passed around. I thought, well, if this is as interesting for me and my family and all of you, I should write a book about [my experiences]."

Feiler, who grew up Jewish in Savannah, Georgia, says that an early encounter with the legend of Abraham was part of a watershed moment for him. The Torah passage he read for his Bar Mitzvah was Lekh Lekha, the story of Abraham going forth from his father's house. He told BeliefNet, "The defining moment of my life was the night of my Bar Mitzvah, when my father pulled me aside at this family gathering, poured me a drink, and said, 'Son, you're a man now, you're responsible for your own actions.'"

Feiler's exploration of the Bible has been confined to the Hebrew Bible, leaving out much in the Old Testament and the entirety of the New Testament; but he told readers in a USA Today chat that he hopes to do a sequel that would take him through the events of Jesus' life.

Feiler is also a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine and has won two James Beard Awards for his food writing.

Feiler says he has traveled to over 60 countries and sprained his ankle on four continents.

Read More Show Less
    1. Also Known As:
      Bruce S. Fieler
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 25, 1964
    2. Place of Birth:
      Savannah, Georgia
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1987; M.Phil. in international relations, Cambridge University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

Under the Big Top
A Season with the Circus

Chapter One

A Toe in the Ring

"Before we start I want you all to know there's always a chance we might end up with a dead elephant ... "

Dr. Darryl Heard's voice was stern and deep, softened only by a faint Australian brogue that gave his already blunt warning an eerie, otherworldly air.

"Whenever you take an animal this large, this old," he continued, "and put her under general anesthesia, there's a forty percent chance that she won't wake up again, we may have to roll her out of here."

"You can't use local anesthesia?" E. Douglas Holwadel stepped forward into the doctor's face, removed a rapidly disappearing cigarette from his lips, and ran his empty hand across his receding gray hairline. As co-owner of Sue, a forty-two-year-old, 5,500-pound, "petite" Asian elephant valued at around $75,000, he alone was allowed to smoke in the operating barn. Though it was not yet 8:30 in the morning, he was already nearing the end of his first pack.

"Not with an operation of this magnitude," Dr. Heard replied. "She might go berserk and crush us all. We have to put her to sleep entirely."

"And you've done this before?"

"A dozen times. Just last weekend I went up to Albany, Georgia, to remove a tusk from an African male. We had him up twenty minutes after the operation was done. I just want you to be aware of the dangers. We can always stop the operation if you're not comfortable — "

"No," said Doug. "We're here. Let's do it."

"In that case," said the doctor, "I need your signature."

Doug dropped his cigarette onto the floor and retrieved a fountainpen from the well-starched pocket of one of his two dozen Brooks Brothers shirts. A little over four hours earlier, Doug and I had left circus winter quarters in a dark, driving rainstorm not uncommon for late January in central Florida. The previous day, after our introductory meeting, Doug had invited me to accompany him during this emergency operation to remove an ingrown toenail from Sue's right front leg. Never having seen an elephant under anesthesia, I agreed.

It was well before dawn when we set out. The outside thermometer in his maroon Cadillac with EDH plates said 39 degrees. We followed behind newly painted "Truck No. 60, Elephant Department," kitchen white with stylized red letters that read: "Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus-world's Largest Under the Big Top." Leaving DeLand, home of the circus and undisputed fern capital of the world, we passed through DeLeon Springs ("They don't have a decent bar," Doug mentioned, "so everyone drives to Barberville"), across the St. Johns River, which runs from Orlando to Jacksonville ("Do you know why the St. Johns is the only river in Florida to run upstream?" he asked. "Because Georgia sucks." He laughed especially hard, knowing Georgia was my home state), until we arrived at the crack of dawn at the William N. Inman and Clara Strickland Inman Food Animal Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"Could you stop that drilling and sawing," Doug called out to some nearby construction workers after he had signed the papers. "It'll spook the hell out of Sue."

Finally, at a little past 8:30, with the arrangements for the operation complete, Captain Fred Logan waddled alongside the high-tech operating barn and began escorting Sue up the walkway with a bull hook, a short cane with a stubby hook on the end. He paused slightly to let a Vietnamese potbellied pig wobble across the path. A seventy-year-old Canadian who had literally run away to join the circus when he was a boy, Fred had been the chief elephant trainer with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus for over two decades, but in all that time he had never had to put an elephant under total anesthesia.

Once inside, Fred led Sue to the center of a hay bed about the size of an average mall parking space.

"Be sure she lies down on her left side," called Dr. Heard. "It's the only way we'll be able to get to her right front leg and have total access to her toenail."

"Don't worry," Fred said gruffly. "That's the only way she'll go." Circus elephants, he explained later, are trained to lie only on their left side. It's one of only eight or so commands the average elephant can comprehend.

Once Sue was standing in her place; Fred tied a thick yellow rope to each of her left feet and tossed them under her body. As soon as she felt the ropes Sue started to squirm.

"Back, Sue. Back!" Fred barked.

Sue stepped backward and began to grumble.

"Front, Sue. Front."

She stepped forward and started to shake.

"Steady, steady ... Thata girl."

With the patient temporarily calm, Dr. Heard snapped into action. He tossed the ends of the two ropes over Sue's back and ordered four of his white-coated assistants to stand behind the protective railing and prepare to pull her over if necessary. When everyone arrived in position, he gave the signal to advance.

"Down, Sue. Down!" commanded Fred, but Sue did not obey.

"Sue, down!" he shouted.

Sue slowly leaned down on her back legs, disobeying his command to lie down on her side. Fred ordered her to stand up again, which she did with an unfriendly growl.

"Back, Sue. Back!" he continued. "Front, Sue. Front! Down."

The process was repeated several times, but each time Sue kneeled down instead of lying on her side. "Let's try a little psychology," Fred said. He asked one of the assistants to retrieve a kitchen broom, which he used to brush Sue's back in an effort to bribe her down. It didn't work.

Dr. Heard then changed the plan, announcing that he would inject the patient with a dosage of morphine 80,000 times the potency normally given to humans. He rested one hand on Sue's forehead, pulled back her rubbery flipperlike ear, and gave her an injection with a syringe.

The elephant shook angrily even before the injection was completed. She began to swing her head in disgust.

"Down, Sue. Down!" Fred pleaded, but she ignored him and grumbled loudly.

"Hold on to the ropes!" Dr. Heard shouted. "Don't let her fall to her right or we'll have to abandon the operation."

Four men pulled the ropes taut. Doug turned his eyes away. Fred shouted more frequently.

"Down, Sue. Down. Steady!" His voice took on an imploring tone, but at that point it no longer mattered. Sue could no longer hear him. She knelt down on her back feet as she had done twice before, but instead of leaning down on her front knees, this time her entire body went suddenly limp like a deflating hot-air balloon.

"Now, now!" called Dr. Heard. "Pull her toward the left." The four assistants slowly tugged the 5,500-pound Sue until she collapsed droopily on her left side. The ropes had worked perfectly. Sue's inflamed foot was exposed. The operation could proceed.

Under the Big Top
A Season with the Circus
. Copyright © by Bruce Feiler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Winter Quarters
1 A Toe in the Ring 13
First Half
The Circus on Parade 29
2 Under a Canvas Sky 34
A Rare Breed of Tiger 43
3 First of May 53
Facing the Fire 66
4 Outsiders Always Make Mistakes 81
Swings of Fate 99
5 This Is When They Become Real 109
Give the Bear a Dog 125
6 Death of a Naif 137
The Amazing Art of Hair Suspension 152
7 Please Don't Pet the Elephants 164
Nights with White Stallions 172
8 A Streak of Blood 180
The Color of Popcorn 193
Second Half
9 The Star of the Show 205
Triple Whammy 218
10 Without Saying Goodbye 225
Where Are the Clowns? 232
11 Reborn 241
Love on the Wire 254
12 At Heaven's Door 262
An American Dream 273
Behind the Painted Smiles 285
Read All About It 287
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2003

    I love the book

    The book is the best book about the circus. I loved the book is is great. The book is a good book about the circus.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)