Full of colorful performers, the circus seems like the answer to Harold's loneliness. He's eager to meet the Cannibal King, a sideshow attraction who's an albino too. He's touched that Princess Minikin and the Fossil Man, two other sideshow curiosities, embrace him like a son. He's in love with Flip, the beguiling horse trainer, and awed by the all-knowing Gypsy Magda. Most of all, Harold is proud of training the elephants, and of earning respect and a sense of normality. Even at the circus, though, two groups exist--the freaks, and everyone else.
Harold straddles both groups. But fitting in with those who are "normal" comes at a price, and sometimes it's recognizing the truth beneath what's apparent that ultimately leads to happiness . . . and turns a boy into a man.
|Publisher:||Random House Children's Books|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||767 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was the hottest day of the year. Only the Ghost was out in the sun, only the Ghost and his dog. They shuffled down Liberty's main street with puffs of dust swirling at their feet, as though the earth was so hot that it smoldered.
It wasn't yet noon, and already a hundred degrees. But the Ghost wore his helmet of leather and fur, a pilot's helmet from a war that was two years over. It touched his eyebrows and covered his ears; the straps dangled and swayed at his neck.
He was a thin boy, white as chalk, a plaster boy dressed in baggy clothes. He wore little round spectacles with black lenses that looked like painted coins on his eyes. And he stared through them at a world that was always blurred, that sometimes jittered across the darkened glass. From the soles of his feet to the top of his head, his skin was like rich white chocolate, without a freckle anywhere. Even his eyes were such a pale blue that they were almost clear, like raindrops or quivering dew.
He glanced up for only a moment. Already there was a scrawl of smoke to the west, creeping across the prairie. But the Ghost didn't hurry; he never did. He hadn't missed a single train in more than a hundred Saturdays.
He turned the corner at the drugstore, his honey-colored dog behind him. They went down to the railway tracks and the little station that once had been a sparkling red but now was measled by the sun. At three minutes to noon he sat on the bench on the empty platform, and the dog crawled into the shadows below it.
The Ghost put down his stick and his jar, then dabbed at the sweat that trickled from the rim of his helmet. The top of it was black with sweat, in a circle like a skullcap.
The scrawl of smoke came closer. It turned to creamy puffs. The train whistled at Batsford's field, where it started around the long bend toward Liberty and on to the Rattlesnake. The Ghost lifted his head, and his thin pale lips were set in a line that was neither a frown nor a smile.
"It's going to stop," he told his dog. "You bet it will."
Huge and black, pistons hissing steam, the engine came leaning into the curve. It pulled a mail car and a single coach in a breathy thunder, a shriek of wheels. It rattled the windows in the clapboard station, shedding dust from the planks. The bench jiggled on metal legs.
"I know it's going to stop," said the Ghost.
But it didn't. The train roared past him in a blast of steam, in a hot whirl of wind that lashed the helmet straps against his cheeks. And on this Saturday in July, as he had every other Saturday that he could possibly remember, Harold the Ghost blinked down the track and sighed the saddest little breath that anyone might ever hear. Then he picked up his stick and his jar and struck off for the Rattlesnake River.
The stick was his fishing pole, and he carried it over his shoulder. A string looped down behind him, with a wooden bobber swinging at his knees. The old dog came out from the shade and followed him so closely that the bobber whacked her head with a hollow little thunk. But the dog didn't seem to mind; she would put up with anything to be near her master.
They climbed back to Main Street and trudged to the east, past false-fronted buildings coated with dust. The windows were blackboards for children's graffiti, covered with Kilroy faces and crooked hearts scribbled with names: Bobby Loves Betty; Betty Loves George; No One Loves Harold. And across the wide front window of May's Cafe was a poem in slanting lines:
He's ugly and stupid He's dumb as a post He's a freak and a geek He's Harold the Ghost.
In the shade below the window sat a woman on a chair with spindly legs, beside a half-blind old man with spindly legs sitting in a rocker. Harold glanced at them and heard the woman's voice from clear across the street. "There he goes," she said. "I never seen a sadder sight."
He couldn't hear the old man's question, only the woman's answer. "Why, that poor albino boy."
The man mumbled; she clucked like a goose. "Land's sakes! He's going to the river, of course. Down where the Baptists go. Where they dunk themselves in the swimming hole."
His head down, his boots scuffing, Harold passed from the town to the prairie. The buildings shrank behind him until they were just a brown-and-silver heap. And in the huge flatness of the land he was a speck of a boy with a speck of a dog behind him. He walked so slowly that a tumbleweed overtook him, though the day was nearly calm. In an hour he'd reached the Rattlesnake.
In truth it was no more of a river than Liberty was a city. The Rattlesnake didn't flow across the prairie; it crawled. It went like an ancient dog on a winding path, keeping to the shade when it could. But it was the only river that Harold Kline had ever seen, and he thought it rather grand. He splashed his way along the stream, a quarter mile down the river, until he reached his favorite spot, where the banks were smooth and grassy. Then he sat, and the dog lay beside him. He put a worm on his hook and cast out the bobber. It plunged in, popped out, tilted and straightened, like a little diver who'd found the river too cold. A pair of water striders dashed over to have a look at it, and dashed away again.
The dog was asleep in an instant. She hadn't run more than a yard in more than a year, but she dreamed about running now, her legs twitching.
"Where are you off to?" asked Harold the Ghost. His voice was soft as smoke. "You're off to Oregon, I bet. You're running through the forests, aren't you? You're running where it's cool and shady, you poor old thing." He looked up at the sun, a hot white smudge in his glasses.
The dog went everywhere Harold did. It seemed only natural to him that she would dream of the places he dreamed about.
"We'll get there," he said, leaning back. The grass and the water and the blue of the sky made a pleasant blur of colors around him. "David will be on the next train, maybe. Or for sure the one after that. And he'll take us away. You bet he will."
Reading Group Guide
1. From the very beginning of the novel, Harold is on a journey. What is he looking for? Does he find it?
2. At no time during this journey does Harold stop and wonder about the consequences of running away. Why not?
3. Describe Harold’s personality. Which of his characteristics do you find admirable?
4. “And across the wide front window of May’s Cafe was a poem in slanting lines:
He’s ugly and stupid
He’s dumb as a post
He’s a freak and a geek
He’s Harold the Ghost.” (p. 3)
Harold has seen this cruel rhyme and heard the people of Liberty call him names such as Whitey, Maggot, and Harold the Ghost so often that he has accepted it all as true. How do other people’s perceptions of Harold affect his perception of himself? How do others’ perceptions of you affect the way you look upon yourself?
5. The Gypsy Magda asks Harold, “If you think that you are less than them, can you blame them for thinking they are better?” (pp. 88—89) Discuss the meaning of her question. When does Harold begin to see himself clearly? How has society tried to justify its treatment of minorities, foreigners, and others who don’t fit into the conventional models of the community?
6. Harold struggles to exist between two competing worlds: the world of the sideshow performers and the world of the “normal” people. Teens are often faced with a similar dilemma: family versus friends or one group of friends versus another. How would you manage these choices without alienating one group or the other?
7. “The morning clouds were thick toward the west. Blue and black, smeared with yellow, they made the sky look bruised and battered.” (p. 45)
There are beautiful descriptive passages throughout the novel. Read aloud your favorite of these lyrical passages and talk about why you find them so pleasing.
8. Throughout the novel, there are characters, events, and places that are symbols for ideas: the circus, the Cannibal King, the Oregon Trail, and the storm, to name a few. What does each of these metaphors represent?
9. Whenever Harold feels threatened, he closes his eyes tightly and chants silently to himself, “No one can see me, no one can hurt me. The words that they say cannot harm me.” (p. 11) Harold’s belief in his own invisibility defines his sense of being an alien. Many teens share these feelings of being an outsider. How have you experienced these feelings? How do you deal with them?
10. At first Harold thinks Samuel is the ugliest thing he has ever seen. Yet when Harold stares into Samuel’s eyes he sees something other than ugliness. Samuel and Tina carry the message that a person’s self-worth is determined by what is inside, not by physical appearance. But every message from the media today seems to be that your physical appearance is the only important thing. Where do you stand on this issue? Talk about the instances in the novel where the sideshow performers show their goodness. In which instances in the novel do the “normal” people show their lack of humanity?
11. “Beware the ones with unnatural charm. And the beast that feeds with its tail. . . . A wild man’s meek and a dark one’s pale. And there comes a monstrous harm.” (p. 60)
This is one of Gypsy Magda’s prophecies in the novel. What are some of the others? What do her prophecies mean? Do they come true?
12. We meet Tina, Samuel, and the other malformed sideshow performers when they are adults. What do you suppose it was like for them as teenagers? Did they view themselves as freaks? Did they have the same hopes and aspirations that you do? Do you think they would receive the same kind of treatment now as they did back then?
13. Harold is beset with loss. His father dies in World War II, and his brother is missing in action; he feels he has lost his mother to another man; he loses his dream romance with Flip, the bareback rider; he witnesses the death of Tina; and he even suffers from the lack of pigment in his skin. How does Harold deal with these losses? What losses have you had in your life? How did you cope with them?
14. When Harold first meets Tina, it is she who says to Harold, “Maybe you should come with us.” (p. 16) Yet her dying words to him are “Go see your mama. Okay? . . . She’ll miss you, kiddo.” (p. 313) What does Tina know about what Harold needs?
Discussion questions prepared by Clifford Wohl, educational consultant.