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The Circus in Winter

The Circus in Winter

3.7 3
by Cathy Day

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From 1884 to 1939, the Great Porter Circus makes the unlikely choice to winter in an Indiana town called Lima, a place that feels as classic as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and as wondrous as a first trip to the Big Top. In Lima an elephant can change the course of a man's life-or the manner of his death. Jennie Dixianna entices men with her dazzling Spin


From 1884 to 1939, the Great Porter Circus makes the unlikely choice to winter in an Indiana town called Lima, a place that feels as classic as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and as wondrous as a first trip to the Big Top. In Lima an elephant can change the course of a man's life-or the manner of his death. Jennie Dixianna entices men with her dazzling Spin of Death and keeps them in line with secrets locked in a cedar box. The lonely wife of the show's manager has each room of her house painted like a sideshow banner, indulging her desperate passion for a young painter. And a former clown seeks consolation from his loveless marriage in his post-circus job at Clown Alley Cleaners.

In her astonishing debut, Cathy Day follows the circus people into their everyday lives, bringing the greatest show on earth to the page.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Day's collection of linked short stories is as graceful as any acrobat's high-wire act." -SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

"This is one circus act that doesn't rely on dependable gimmicks to keep the audience amused."

"[Cathy Day's] elegantly juggled debut collection of interconnected stories . . . conjures a bigger picture of family-and of America . . . [A] bright tent of storytelling."-ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Welcome to Lima (pronounced like the bean) Indiana, a town unlike other small midwestern towns in one very important respect: Here, the circus came to spend the winter months. Every fall, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, brightly painted trains would roll in, unloading animals and circus people alike into a large compound of barns, bunkhouses, cages, and paddocks on the outskirts of town. Elephants bathed in the river, big cats roared at the rain, and clowns, acrobats, and showmen drank whiskey around the campfire.

In a series of interwoven vignettes spanning three generations, Cathy Day paints a heartfelt portrait of performers both human and animal. "Jennie Dixianna" performs her trademark "Spin of Death"; Caesar the elephant is mistreated in life by his cruel trainers and misrepresented in death by those who believe their lies; and phony circus "freaks" ponder the effects of their exploitation and public humiliation.

The Circus in Winter is the story of a town where history's indelible imprint is found on modern life. While traveling shows are less common today, the impetus to wander remains, which makes Day's historically based fiction a careful yet marvelous study of human nature seen through the eyes of those who traveled with their "family" through a world in which they were always strangers. (Fall 2004 Selection)

Gary Krist
In The Circus in Winter, her new collection of interrelated short stories, [Day] succeeds in appropriating much of the garish pungency of the world of freaks, geeks and sideshow Houdinis without succumbing to its ready banalities. Although once or twice she treads close to cliche -- must the revelations of two-bit fortunetellers in fiction always turn out to be true? -- most of the time she steers clear of tired expectations. This is one circus act that doesn't rely on dependable gimmicks to keep the audience amused.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Day's debut collection spins graceful, elegant circles around the inhabitants of Lima, Ind.-especially the acrobats, clowns and circus folk of the Great Porter Circus who spent their winters there from 1884 to 1939. The poignant opening tale reveals how Wallace Porter, distraught by the death of his beloved wife, came to own his eponymous menagerie. The second, "Jennie Dixianna," introduces the dazzling, tricky Jennie, who wears her wound from her Spin of Death act "like a talisman bracelet, a secret treasure" and plots her way into Wallace's heart. Other stories tell of the young black man who plays at being an African pinhead; the son of a trainer killed by his circus elephant; the flood that devastated the circus. Thanks to finely observed details and lovely prose, each of these stories is a convincing world in miniature, filled with longing and fueled by doubt. Day, who grew up in a town like Lima and descends from circus folk herself, uses family stories, historical research and archival photographs to weave these enchantments. Though her stories often contain tragedy and violence-death in childbirth or from floodwater, cancer, circus mishap-they're also full of beauty. In "The Bullhook," Ollie, a retired clown, spends long decades with his frigid wife, waiting, armed with his father's bullhook, for death to come for him. In "Circus People," Ollie's granddaughter reflects on her fellow itinerant academics, "my latest circus family," and muses about people all over America who leave the place they grew up: "when the weather and the frequency are just right, we can all hear our hometowns talking softly to us in the back of our dreams." B&w illus.. Agent, Peter Steinberg. (July) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A series of sensitively drawn, interconnected short stories makes up Day's first novel, which invites readers into the less-than-fanciful realm of circus folk. Drawing on observations made during her own childhood in Peru, IN home of the International Circus Hall of Fame Day strips away the grease paint and costumes of clowns, elephant trainers, and steel-nerved acrobats to reveal lives as messy as any found in mainstream America. As her narrative meanders back and forth in time, the fates of her characters are shaped by tragedy, misguided romance, and the ironies of natural catastrophes. Two drunken clowns forget to use a wooden wig, which would have prevented one from burying an ax in the head of the other. An aging, intoxicated acrobat is crushed in a dreadful flood by the very bed she so generously shared with the countless men she bewitched with her charms. Meticulously researched and graced with a dozen lovely black-and-white historical circus photographs, Day's portrayal of life under and outside the big top is accomplished; several of the short stories were previously published in slightly different form. Strongly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/04.] Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Day's wise, warmhearted debut reveals the private lives and secret yearnings of clowns, acrobats, and pinheads as they interact with the locals in a circus's midwestern off-season home. Herself the descendant of a ticket-taker and an elephant trainer, the author integrates family history with documentary research to create a multifaceted portrait of Lima, Indiana (stand-in for her hometown, Peru). It could be any American town filled with men stuck in dead-end jobs and women looking for more from life than another baby-except for the galvanizing annual stays of the circus folk. Immigrants, misfits, dwarves, and former slaves reinvented as African royalty, they incarnate the intoxicating possibilities of freedom and pleasure beyond the edge of town, even though their lives are scarred by loss, disappointment, and tragedy. As the narrative moves forward across the 20th century in a series of stories about interconnected characters, the Great Porter Circus shuts down, its performers and roustabouts retire, and their children become dry cleaners, railroad clerks, and bank tellers. Traces of glitter and sawdust in the air add a ghostly poignancy to the later tales of small-town restlessness. "The King and His Court," a brilliant, bitter chronicle of Laura Hofstadter, whose dreams are stymied by an unwanted pregnancy, launches the second half, in which all the thematic strands come together. "There are basically two kinds of people in the world," Laura tells her daughter Jenny before vanishing. "The kind who stay are town people, and the kind who leave are circus people." Jenny becomes a modern-day circus person, an academic who moves from place to place and job to job. But when she returns forthe funeral of Grandpa Ollie, a former clown, Jenny realizes, "the world is full of hometowns . . . . And just because it was hard to leave Linden Avenue in Flatbush or the Naperville city limits or Lima doesn't mean you can't ever go back." The book closes on that moving note of reconciliation and understanding. Funny and tough-minded, yet tender and touched with magic: this is a real find. Agent: Peter Steinberg/JCA Literary Agency

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

CIRCUS PROPRIETORS are not born to sawdust and spangles. Consider this: P. T. Barnum was nothing more than a dry-goods peddler-that is until he bought a black woman for $1,000, a sum he quickly recouped by displaying her as George Washington's 161-year-old mammy. Barnum's business partner, James Bailey, was born little Jimmy McGinnis-an orphaned bellboy transformed into circus mastermind, a man who taught army quartermasters the science of transporting masses of men and equipment by rail. Before trains, circuses traveled by horse-drawn wagons (and were called "mud shows" for obvious reasons) and by riverboat. If it hadn't been for paddle wheels and tall stacks, brothers Al, Alf, Charles, John, and Otto Rungeling might have become Iowa harness makers, like their father. But one morning along the Mississippi in 1870, the brothers were smitten with an elephant lumbering down a circus steamboat gangplank and became forever after the Ringling Brothers, owners (along with Barnum and Bailey) of the Greatest Show on Earth.

For many years, their greatest rival was the Great Porter Circus, owned by one Wallace Porter, a former Union cavalry officer. After Appomattox, Porter took his hard-won equine knowledge, applied it to the family's business, and became, at the age of thirty-eight, the owner of the largest livery stable in northern Indiana. How he became a circus man is another story altogether.

EACH SUMMER, Wallace Porter boarded a train in Lima, Indiana, and headed due east through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey to the strange land of a million people, New York City. He employed a number of lawyers and bankers to oversee the profits from his stables and dutifully met with them once a year to discuss markets and dividends. These obligations dispensed with, he hailed a carriage and disappeared into the swarm of the city, following the true impetus of his trip. Wallace Porter went to New York to indulge in extravagance.

During his weeklong stay, he hardly slept, so intent was he to glut himself on the city. In the mornings, he had a shave and walked along the avenues down the length of Manhattan, which, in the late 1800s, was not an arduous undertaking. He handled his business over lunch, and afterward, he visited the finest men's tailors in the city and bought new shirts, Chesterfield coats, leather boots, and bowler hats-all of which were shipped back to Lima in enormous Saratoga trunks. At night, he dined out in the best restaurants, gorging himself on pheasant and artichokes. He drowned in vintage French wines. After dinner, he took in a play or the symphony, and then, until the small hours of the night, he roamed the parks alone. In Lima, such lavishness was a mark of poor character, a flaw almost impossible to hide, which was why Porter enjoyed the brief anonymity of the city. On the train ride back home, Porter tallied his expenses and hid that figure in his breast pocket like a guilty boy. He felt his thrifty father's eyes upon him, heard his voice saying, So what you can afford this? The money would buy more horses, carriages, a month's worth of hay. To punish himself, Porter lived a spartan existence the rest of the year, but come summer, he had to board the train, like a fish that must spawn. Always, he returned to Indiana feeling both completely hollow and fully sated.

The trip he took to New York in 1883 was different than the others, because that was the year he met Irene, who would become his wife. His banker, Irene's father, invited him to a Fourth of July party and introduced Porter to his guests as "my new friend, the pioneer from Indiana." Porter looked nothing like a settler, but something about the name itself, Lima, invoked the exotic and the adventurous.

The party was given on a warm summer evening. Irene's father decked the house in red, white, and blue, and instructed the small band he'd hired to play Sousa marches every so often to get folks in the patriotic mood. Irene descended the stairs to "Bonnie Annie Laurie" and caught Porter's eye as he stood near the punch bowl smoking a cigar. He was handsome in a smallish way that with his clothes and carriage passed for a kind of elegance. When he saw Irene, he dashed his cigar out in a cup of punch and met her at the bottom of the stairs. He took her hand, she smiled, and he realized then that since the war, he'd felt little within his heart except ambition, hardly an emotion at all.

Together, they watched the fireworks display as they ambled in the garden. "Tell me about this town of yours. Lima." Lee-ma, she said.

With a smile, Porter said, "Actually, it's like the bean."

"Are they grown there?"

"It's supposed to be Lee-ma, but I don't think the town fathers knew that." Porter recited a list of mispronounced Midwestern towns named for faraway places: Ver-sails, Brazz-ill, Kay-roh, New Praygue.

Irene laughed. "Tell me about Lie-ma."

So he described the countryside: He lived outside town along the Winnesaw, the river that separated the northern and southern halves of Lima. He described his monthly travel circuit to check on his stables, and again, gave her a litany of town names: Kokomo, Lafayette, Monticello, Rensselaer, Valparaiso, Nappanee, Warsaw, Alexandria. Irene repeated them, like someone trying to learn a foreign language. Bursts of fireworks lit Irene's face, and Porter said, "You should travel west sometime and see a bit of the world."

It was just something to say, but Irene sparked. "What's the farthest west you've ever been, Mr. Porter?"

"Wallace, please," he said. "Leavenworth, Kansas." That was where his cavalry regiment, the Eleventh Indiana, mustered out. Almost twenty years had gone by, but he could still see the land rolling like an ocean into the blue sky. He tried not to remember other images: a barn in Alabama full of stinking, rotting, wailing men. His regiment lost 13 in battle, 161 to disease.

"I've never been farther west than Buffalo, to visit my aunt," Irene said. She motioned with a sweep of her hand. "All these people do nothing but visit one another and marry one another. They just go round and round." Irene sighed. "You're a lucky man, Wallace." He looked at his feet, then up at the colorful sky, trying to gather his courage to ask to see her again the next day. But Irene said it first. "You'll have to come back tomorrow and tell me more." She put her hand in the crook of his arm.

Already, Irene loved Wallace Porter, or knew she would love him. But she also knew this: When men steer women through crowds, they need to believe they are at the helm. Women must apply subtle, imperceptible pressure with their fingertips. In this way women lead while appearing to be led. This is the way of the world.

NEW YORK courtships were customarily long affairs, drawn out over years at times, but Irene would have none of it. When her father protested about how the hasty marriage would look, she laughed and said, "What do I care? I'm going to Indiana." They married two weeks after the party and boarded the train for Lima. The return trip became a makeshift wedding tour with extended stays in the finest hotels in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Louisville, and Cincinnati. They went sightseeing, played faro in riverboat saloons, dined out until they ran out of restaurants, then moved on to the next city. In the Pullman, Irene held Porter's hand but rarely took her eyes from the landscape unfurling beyond the window. To her, the Blue Ridge were the Alps, and the Ohio River might well have been the Nile.

As they neared Lima, Porter saw the flattening land full of corn with new eyes. He thought for sure that upon arrival, Irene would find the town and his house (and by extension, himself) too simple, too crass. How could he tell her the truth? He was a longtime bachelor who, after late nights spent poring over figures, often slept at his livery stable. Despite the furniture and rugs, his home was nothing more than a farmhouse, plain and simple. Porter delayed their arrival there by driving through town in the still-warm September twilight to show her his stables, Robertson's Hotel, the millinery, and the dry-goods store. They passed some of Lima's most well-appointed houses. He'd been inside them, of course, but Porter existed on the fringe of Lima's best circles, the aging bachelor invited to large Christmas parties, but never to lunch, never encouraged to drop by. Surely, he thought, Irene would change that. By the time he turned toward home, darkness had settled down from the trees onto the grass, and cicadas were singing. Neighboring farmhouses-windswept and peeling by day-glowed rosy at night with lamps burning in the windows. Irene drowsed happily as he guided the horses down River Road, which tunneled under the green-black trees lining the Winnesaw River.

At her new home, Irene inspected the sitting room and dining room by the light of a kerosene lamp. She stared at the black kitchen stove and announced that she full well intended to learn its mysteries. Of the four upstairs bedrooms, two were full of clothes, furniture, and paintings-Porter's accumulated New York booty, much of it still in trunks or wrapped in brown paper. Irene laughed. "The king's treasure rooms," she said. Another room Porter used as a study; pipe smoke had worked its way into the walls. She walked on to the simply equipped bedroom-just a dresser, nightstand, and a bed draped with a patchwork quilt.

Porter went to the window to pull down the shade. In the glass, he watched his new wife unfasten her gloves and take down her hair, then remove each piece of clothing: dress, bustle, corset, stockings, chemise. Irene welcomed the night; she had been preparing herself to sleep in that humble bed, in that modest house, for a lifetime already. In the morning, she'd ask her husband to take her for a ride; they'd go until his horse tired then choose a fresh one at one of his stables and ride on, like the Pony Express. At that moment, there was not a single thing lacking.

But what Porter saw reflected in the shivering glass was a woman too lovely for that humble bed in that modest house. He blew out the lamp and said, "I'm going to build us a new place."

"I like this house."

"We need a bigger one. For children."

That night, Porter built a house of words: cut-stone paths crisscrossing the lawn, weaving their way around trees and an English garden with a lily-padded pool. A two-story gray mansion with three white columns and twin verandas half hidden in ivy and rosebushes. For Irene, he would make a temple, a repository of his New York excess and hungers.

He could not see that she was tired of temples. Neither knew that already she was dying. There was a lot Wallace and Irene Porter could not and would not see.

Copyright © 2004 by Cathy Day

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

CATHY DAY grew up in Peru, Indiana, once the winter homem of several circuses. One of her great-uncles was the world’s fastest ticket taker, another was an elephant trainer. She lives in Ewing, New Jersey, and teaches at The College of New Jersey.

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The Circus in Winter 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Whether you prefer plot-driven stories, character-driven stories, or stories with gorgeous sentences that dance in your head, I definitely recommend Cathy Day's debut. I recently finished reading 'The Circus in Winter' recently and LOVED it. It's the best book I've read since Amy Tan's ¿The Bonesetter's Daughter¿ and joins the short list of books that have made me cry (only seven). As good as the individual stories are, the cumulative effect of the stories is so much stronger and novelistic. Excitement, mystery, drama, humor, everything you could ever want is here. By the end of the book when a descendant of circus folk revisits the town and walks around the cemetery, we know all the people ourselves and they are our ghosts too. My favorite characters were Wallace Porter and Jennie Dixianna--it was great how they kept coming back, perceived differently by everyone, like presiding spirits, unofficial king and queen of the circus. 'The King and His Court' is the story that really gave me goosebumps, and I think probably the best one. Overall, the prose manages that difficult balancing act between a conversational tone and flourishes of poetry. My favorite sentence was at the very end of ¿Jennie Dixianna¿: ¿This was her story--a collage of broken glass from a thousand shattered bottles, and each new shard made her stronger and more beautiful.¿
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Like a jigsaw puzzle, once put together they form a complete picture of the people who made up this circus town.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i was not thrilled with this book. i just could not get into it. each chapter is a story about a different character and while some were interesting, i certainly wasn't drawn to keep reading. i finished the book only because i was out of the country and could not find anything else to read.