The Circus in Winter

The Circus in Winter

by Cathy Day

Paperback(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156032025
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 07/06/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 306
Sales rank: 693,943
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

About 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.

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.

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The Circus in Winter 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 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.¿
Whisper1 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is a fascinating novel of the Wallace Porter circus that wintered in Lima, Indiana. The author grew up in Peru, Indiana where the actual Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus wintered.This is a humorous, insightful, poignant in-depth look at circus life from 1884-1939. Painting a lovely canvas of circus freaks, clowns, acrobats, ring leaders, managers, owners, elephants, hippos, tigers and the strong resiliency of a circus struggling to survive, the author never stoops to pity or darkness.Through a series of well told, interlocking stories, this is well researched snapshot of a complex community.Highly recommended.
iubookgirl on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I thought Day did an excellent job of depicting this golden era of the American circus. I have always heard of the Indiana ties to the circus, but never embraced them as I did after reading The Circus in Winter. I am now itching to visit the Peru circus museum.
bremmd on LibraryThing 8 months ago
There's something inherently fasinating about a circus. There's also something inherently creepy about a circus. What does the circus do when the winter comes? Why, they settle in Indiana. Why they would choose a cold place to winter instead of say, California or Florida is a question for another book. There is a town in Florida where ex-circus folk live but that's another book as well. This is the story of the fictional Wallace Porter circus and it's winters in Lima, Indiana (Lie-ma, not Leema) Based on a read circus that wintered in Peru, Indiana this is a inside look into depression era circus life.The second section of the book deals more with the families who live in this former circus town and while not nearly as fascinating still very well written and an interesting take on how the history of a small town plays a large part in the lives of it's inhabitants.
extrajoker on LibraryThing 8 months ago
stories: Wallace Porter / Jennie Dixianna / The Last Member of the Boela Tribe / The Circus House / Winnesaw / The Lone Star Cowboy / The Jungle Goolah Boy / The King and His Court / Boss Man / The Bullhook / Circus PeopleI really enjoyed this collection of interrelated short stories all set in the same town, where a traveling circus spends the winter months. Together, these tales form a sketchbook history of the town (inspired by Day's own hometown) and its denizens. Really, though, the stories deal with the motivations and relationships of their very human characters, with the sawdust and sequins merely a backdrop.In other words, this collection may appeal to non-"circus fanatics" who appreciate character-driven, introspective writing.
stevedore on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Seemingly a collection of short stories that weave in and out of each other to tell the tale of quiet town that has more history than it knows. Oddly, the style reminded me of Julian Barnes' History of the World in Ten and Half Chapters.
yourotherleft on LibraryThing 11 months ago
The Circus in Winter is an excellent book made up of interconnected short stories about all variety of people tied to a circus that wintered in a small town in Indiana. Usually novels made up of short stories leave me cold, but these were so well woven together with such pervasive common themes that it was really enjoyable. Day brings the circus people and their descendants vividly to life in both their joys and their tragedies. I especially liked how the last story brought out the theme of town people being those that stay but circus people always moving, even when they are no longer technically "circus people." Day definitely captures the enduring impression the circus left on the town even well after it had disbanded.
punxsygal on LibraryThing 11 months ago
A series of stories about the circus in Lima, Indiana--the elephants, the spin of death, the clowns. But it goes further, into the generations to follow, other lives lived, but still circus people. Beautiful writing.
kendy15 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Imagine that a circus back in the early 1900¿s used an old horse farm in small town Indiana as their winter headquarters. How many lives could be affected by this activity? What kind of people made up the circus of long ago? How many generations would the circus affect long after it was no more? Answers are discovered in Cathy Day¿s engrossing tale Circus in Winter. For many the circus was an opportunity for a better life, for others it represented youth and innocence, and for some it was an escape. Adult themes of death, abandonment, love, sex, and depression are explored in this fictional novel. Those familiar with the south-central Indiana towns of Lima, Rensselaer, Valparaiso, Nappanee, Warsaw and Alexandria will appreciate the references to past and present times.
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.