In 1965 seventeen-year-old Victoria, having just escaped an unstable home, flees to the ultimate place for dreamers and runaways--the circus. Specifically, the VanDrexel Family Circus where, among the lion tamers, roustabouts, and trapeze artists, Victoria hopes to start a better life.
Fifty years later, Victoria's sixteen-year-old granddaughter Callie is thriving. A gifted and focused tightrope walker with dreams of being a VanDrexel high wire legend just like her grandmother, Callie can't imagine herself anywhere but the circus. But when Callie's mother accepts her dream job at an animal sanctuary in Florida just months after Victoria's death, Callie is forced to leave her lifelong home behind.
Feeling unmoored and out of her element, Callie pores over memorabilia from her family's days on the road, including a box that belonged to Victoria when she was Callie's age. In the box, Callie finds notes that Victoria wrote to herself with tips and tricks for navigating her new world. Inspired by this piece of her grandmother's life, Callie decides to use Victoria's circus prowess to navigate the uncharted waters of public high school.
Across generations, Victoria and Callie embrace the challenges of starting over, letting go, and finding new families in unexpected places.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
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She should have never asked to go.
It had been an innocent enough request, and there was always a chance things might have gone differently—because that was how he was. She always had just as much chance of being surprised as she did of being thrown halfway across the room. (All the way across when she was younger, but she was sixteen now and almost as tall as him.) Had it been last Thursday or next Tuesday, or if she’d been wearing yellow not blue, perhaps he would have simply smoothed the pages of his Sunday Globe and huffed a brusque, “You may.” But it was today and he was him, and his fists had a way of coming out of nowhere before she could even duck.
She had discovered recently that a whimper of pain from her mother was a guaranteed trigger for his trademark unpredictable violence. He loathed the sound of weakness, hated that she was frail, as though somehow it reflected poorly on him—on Davis Winston Hastings—to have a sickly wife. Early on, she’d tried to suppress the noise of her misery, but things were worse now and she could no longer manage it; the malignant thing had become all that there was of her, nestled there between her ribs.
And although Catherine was smart enough to know better, she could never quite shake the feeling that he had somehow placed it there, that he had conjured the tumor just to be cruel, just to exert his unyielding authority over them. “I can make you sick, then punish you for not being be well.” Because he was the one in charge, make no mistake about that. He was the one with the name and the money and the manhood, and so he held their whole world in his punch-drunk fists.
He made the rules and the rules were everything. Unwritten, unspoken, undeniably understood: Remain at the dinner table until given permission to leave; Earn excellent grades, but never appear smarter than the boys; Appreciate what is given to you and ask for nothing more.
She should have never asked to go.
But sometimes the smack did not come; sometimes the insult went unspoken; sometimes her meals would not be withheld in the wake of some perceived misbehavior or shortcoming. On some days he could be utterly indifferent. Some days he’d return home from work, his trademark pocket square still folded flawlessly even after a long day at the office, acting as if he were surprised to find Catherine and Meredith there in his house—like two forgotten knickknacks, or things caught in a cobweb. He was never gentle, never kind, never good, but praise the Lord in heaven for indifference. Catherine’s best days were the ones when he just ignored her.
Today, as it turned out, would not be one of those days.
“I was invited to stay at Emily Davenport’s tonight,” she said. “I was hoping I could—”
His hand had lashed toward her like lightning, his fingers wrapping around her long dark ponytail, yanking it hard. “You don’t tell me what you’re hoping for. You ask if I will allow it.”
Swallowing the degradation, she quickly rephrased the question. “Please, Father, may I stay at Emily’s house tonight?”
His answer was lost to the sound of a sudden commotion outside. Not an ugly din, like the kind generated by the riots she’d heard about in Harlem last year and Birmingham the year before. No—this was a beautiful upset, a ruckus of unadulterated joy.
“What in holy hell is that?” he demanded, as if it were her job to know, as if the noisy interruption could somehow be blamed on her.
“The circus,” she muttered in disgust, because she was sure that was how he would want her to feel about such a garish display. She’d heard that it was in town, but had forgotten until just now, as the parade came unfurling along the perfect Brooksvale Avenue on which their perfect brick house stood among other perfect brick houses (though theirs was the most perfect by far—because it was his).
Perhaps it was the gleeful intrusion of the circus parade that compelled him to increase the duration of his torment. He was usually appeased (or perhaps bored) sooner. But today he held tight until her scalp stung and her face was streaked with tears.
Without releasing his hold on her hair, he dragged her toward the open front door. Squinting through the spring shadows that fell across the covered porch, Catherine saw her mother, hardly more than a shadow herself, bundled under woolen blankets on a wicker chaise. She was watching the circus performers file past in the late-day sunshine—a roaring, dancing, tumbling rainbow.
The music was as irresistible as if they’d hired the Pied Piper himself to lead the band. Catherine wished it would stop. She wished it would never stop. It was at once too lovely and too strange, and it did not belong here, dancing and cartwheeling through her humiliation.
“Be back in this house by ten o’clock tomorrow morning, or I will come after you,” he said, punctuating his consent with a shove that sent Catherine stumbling through the front door. She went skidding across the porch on her hands and knees to land at her mother’s feet. “Have I made myself understood?”
Her knees throbbed; her palms burned. Damn right she understood. Eyes on the porch floor, she nodded.
He hovered there long enough to remove his pocket square and use it to mop his brow. It wasn’t until his footsteps had clomped up the stairs and faded to silence that her mother spoke.
It was a wisp of a voice at best, words almost without sound, but they had Catherine snapping her gaze up to meet her mother’s pale eyes in disbelief. Because while the suggestion seemed innocuous enough, there was something chilling in the delivery that made her heart race.
“I’m dying, my love, my darling girl. We both know it. I’ll be surprised if I live out the week.”
“Catherine.” Meredith Quinn Hastings held up a shaky hand to silence her child; the exertion of even that showed in her gaunt face, but she did not let her trembling fingertips fall back into her lap. Instead they went to the satin lapel of her bathrobe, to the Cartier brooch her sadistic son-of-a-bitch husband insisted she wear, despite the fact that the weight of it was now too much for her to carry. “There’s always a chance a friend or neighbor might stop in to ask after your health,” he’d snarled more than once, so if she couldn’t honor him by looking healthy, she could at least look wealthy—she owed him that much, didn’t she? The jewel-encrusted brooch had been weighing her down for months.
With the fire-eaters crackling past and the plumed horses trotting like something from a dream, Meredith fumbled with the clasp, then held the pin out to her daughter. Because another thing they both knew was that this brooch was virtually priceless.
“To Emily’s, you mean?” Catherine’s throat was tight.
Meredith’s chin trembled, but she lifted it defiantly and lied, “Where else?”
For the space of a heartbeat her eyes shone with determination, with hope. Over the vanishing strains of circus music, she used what little strength she had to jerk her chin in the direction of the last grinning clown as he skipped out of sight. Then came the last words she would ever speak to her child.
“Go, Catherine,” she urged.
So Catherine did.
The words for this parting do not exist in any language, so I bid my mother goodbye without them, kissing her lightly on her forehead.
Then I run.
Because that’s what you do when you’re running away, isn’t it? You run, knowing that what you’re running from might at any moment discover you’ve escaped; you run, fearing that the danger will follow you for the rest of your life. But that’s the bargain you’ve made, that’s the risk inherent in all actions undertaken in desperation. If nothing else, at least I know I’m going with my mother’s blessing.
I wonder briefly if I will look suspicious to anyone who might notice—a rich girl in a pair of pristine white Keds, plaid pedal pushers, and a powder-blue cotton blouse, sprinting at full tilt along the manicured lanes of Brooksvale. Perhaps on any other day I would, but today, I imagine—I hope—it will just seem like I’m eager to get to the circus.
I run until I can see the fairgrounds ahead, where the Big Top looks like some floppy canvas version of the Taj Mahal. Just keep moving forward, I tell myself, keep moving forward. Slowing my pace, I do just that, visually transforming myself from frightened runaway to carefree circus-goer. It’s amazing how easy it is to disappear, to vanish into this crowd of eager strangers, into the colors and the music, into this place where my father would never even think to look for me—the me he thinks I am, at any rate; the me he has created with the back of his hand and the heel of his shoe and the unwavering gleam of ownership that both lights and darkens his eyes whenever he looks at me.
Or at her. I take cold comfort in the fact that he won’t have her to look at for much longer and wrap my fingers around the diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires clustered in her brooch. It occurs to me that my mother’s gift contains all the colors of the circus, and I squeeze it once, gently, before slipping it into my pocket. I’m relieved to feel the few coins and dollar bills I slipped in there earlier today. My plans with Emily for the evening, in addition to listening to records in the Davenports’ rumpus room, also included a walk to the soda shop, where Emily has a charge account. Not me. When you’re not supposed to be someplace, you don’t run a tab. You pay cash and hope your father never finds out where you’ve been.
The crush of the spectators envelops me, as the ruddy-faced barker, in a parody of himself, cries out, “Step right up, step right up . . .”
And so I do, and he sells me my escape for three dollars and fifty cents.
“Better hurry ’n’ grab a seat, sweetheart,” the ticket salesman advises. “The Spec’ll be startin’ in five.”
The barker laughs. “Our big entrance. A real grand circus parade.”
The ticket in my palm is like a talisman; I will go where it takes me. The flow of the crowd sweeps me into the tent and my heart races as I enter. I hadn’t been prepared for how glittering and seductive a world made of canvas could be. Three enormous rings have been set up in the dirt, and I take my seat on the bottom bleacher. I am as close as I can be to the show, as far as I can be from my life of just minutes ago. Overhead is a vast network of ropes and wires, like the rigging of the tall ships I’ve seen in Boston Harbor. Vendors hawk sodas and souvenirs over the noise of a thousand eager conversations. The anticipation is palpable, the din oddly womblike.
I catch a glimpse of a woman in fishnet tights climbing a ladder toward the pinnacle of the tent. She has feathers in her hair and looks utterly calm, despite the fact that she has now risen forty . . . no, forty-five . . . fifty . . . sixty feet above the ground! The ladder deposits her on a small platform with a hand railing, and she stands there with her hip cocked, her toe pointed, perfectly still, like a doll placed on a high shelf out of the reach of careless children. Stretched out before her is a wire that reaches clear across the center ring.
Others have spotted her now and are pointing, gasping.
Suddenly I’m gasping too, but it has nothing to do with the girl in the sky.
Panic seizes me. What am I doing here? This isn’t a fairy tale. I can’t run off to join the circus!
I feel myself rising from the bleacher, but my legs buckle and my back pockets reconnect with the hard wood of the bench.
A voice over the loudspeaker fills the tent. It’s rich with authority and promise and something else I can’t quite name. “Ladies and gentlemen . . . children of all ages . . .”
No one moves; every guest in every seat is instantly breathless, wide-eyed. A spotlight ignites, and in the center ring stands a man in white jodhpurs and a red velvet blazer trimmed with gold braid. With his arms outstretched and his silk top hat tipped at a jaunty angle, he is elegance and whimsy rolled into one. He is the Ringmaster, a human miracle of entertainment mixed with absolute power. He is a secret, standing there for all to see.
His voice rolls over us like thunder. “I am proud to present for your amusement and amazement, an evening of unimaginable thrills, a show of magnificent splendiferousness, the ONE . . . the ONLY . . . VanDrexel Family Circuuuusss!”
He cracks his whip and the sound makes me jump in my seat. The band strikes up—a brassy fanfare of piano and percussion. More spotlights erupt, chasing themselves around the tent.
My panic fades, and in its place I feel something new, something like sugar melting into my soul—warm and sweet and a little bit decadent.
The tent flaps are pulled wide and six putty-colored horses charge into the Big Top. They are dressed as if this is their coming-out ball, in white tulle, silver fringe, and sequins that seem to outnumber the stars in the sky. An olive-skinned young woman rides without a saddle. Her hair bounces in time with the fluttering of six silken manes and tails. The ground shakes, the bleachers shake—we’re all of us a part of this ride.
Clowns on tiny bicycles roll in; then a troupe of aerialists enters behind them—the men, bare-chested athletes in satin trousers, wave to us like old friends; the women dazzle in their shimmering leotards, their upswept hair spilling ringlets.
Two young men walk in behind the aerialists. They’re surely brothers, and they couldn’t be more handsome if they tried—rugged, with their shirtsleeves rolled high to show off their muscled arms. They wear khaki pants and tall unpolished leather boots. Just behind them on a float is a tiger in a cage.
A man juggling swords.
This is the bigger, bolder brother of the parade that passed by my house. The last thing my mother and I experienced together.
Another spotlight flares to life, haloing the girl on the wire. The band plays a new song, something delicate, crystalline. I lift my face, squinting into the glare just as the girl takes her first step onto the tightrope; an awed gasp escapes my lungs, crashing into the thousands of other gasps from the crowd. The girl is so accomplished, so ethereal, that the tightrope barely dips with her weight. I’ve never seen such confidence, such purpose. She has perfect posture and an otherworldly sense of balance. I pull my eyes from her, scanning the area beneath the rope. Surely there’s a safety net.
No. No net. Just her, on the wire, in the spotlight.
I’ll change my name. I’ll tell a story, put on a show. I’ll march right up to the man in the red blazer and tell him I am seeking employment with his troupe. Anything to secure myself a temporary spot in this marvelous caravan that will put enough miles between me and my soon-to-be widowed father, earning a few dollars while I’m at it. Then three, perhaps four towns from now, I’ll quietly disappear again. I’ll lose myself in a whole new place. I’ll find a job, an apartment, and I’ll finally have the one thing that has always been most forbidden under my father’s reign: independence.
A simple thing, but one I never could have imagined for myself before—the freedom to dress as I like, to choose my own friends, to not marry the sort of boy my father would have chosen for me. I will rely on no one and answer only to myself.
I’ll find a way to take classes at night and finish high school. I’ll save money and go to college. I’ll teach myself to have what the girl on the wire has. Confidence. Purpose.
Sixty feet in the air, she is practically skipping now, skipping across the wire to the other side. The music swells, she spins, pliés, making it look easy. But it’s not easy and that, I realize, is what makes the circus the circus—doing what’s difficult and making it look simple. It’s the presence of that one thing I’ve never had but always needed and didn’t even knew I was missing.
And suddenly, I’m no longer afraid.