Society has changed in many ways since the 1950s, especially in regard to our treatment and acceptance of those with physical differences. Today we favour inclusion and freak shows are a thing of the past.
Lilly has lived her entire life, of nine years, locked in a small attic room. It has one small window, with bars on it. “Momma insists it is for Lilly’s own protection,…that she is an abomination.” Then, one summer night, Momma takes Lilly from her room, outside, across the meadow towards a circus. Lilly is bombarded by smells, the feel of wet grass, the sounds of insects, the stars overhead. She is sold to the circus and spends her first night locked in a cage in a stinking rail car, alongside the camels and llamas.
While it seems that Lilly has simply been taken from one prison to another, the Barlow Brothers Circus is a brutal world. And Lilly’s life in the freak show is not only terrifying, but often dangerous. The “Rubes” don’t see the fat lady, the human skeleton, the bearded lady or Lilly the “Ice Princess” as real people. Often popcorn boxes, rocks, mud and worse are thrown at them. While many – like the half woman, are helpless to leave, everyone else is forbidden to move.
As Lilly becomes friends with Cole – the son of the elephant handler, she also meets the elephants. She has a rare affinity for animals – including the run away zebras. This time with Cole and the animals is one of her few respites in an otherwise sad and horrifying life.
This is a heart-breaking novel, with an abrupt conclusion. It is the stuff of nightmares. One wonders if there are borders on the brutality of man for his fellow humans.
The Plum Tree
What She Left Behind
P. T. Barnum made millions of dollars by capitalizing on people who were considered curiosties – bearded ladies, tattooed men, the severly disfigured like John Merrick, The Elephant Man. Many of these people who were unwillingly forced into the circus industry, were young children.