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Friday, May 14, 2010

The Floating Circus, written by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. Bloomsbury, Penguin Group (Canada), 2008. $17.50 ages 8 and up

"I shoulda listened to my brother. Right follows Zach like a shadow, but wrong wears me like a skin. That rotten-mouthed Simeon wagered me his bread for a week if I could touch the roof of the orphanage. The nag in my stomach could get me to do most anything, and the roof didn't seem but a stretch higher than my usual spot."

From the title you have every reason to believe this is a story about a circus and you would be right; but, it is so much more. It is a story of compassion, family, honor, love and misery. It is a great read for upper early and middle grades and would be conveniently appropriate as a classroom readaloud when the circus comes to town.

Owen and Zach are orphans. Their father has died and their mother, unable to provide for them, has placed them in an orphanage believing they will better off with food and a roof over their heads. Owen is older and angry with their mother and their circumstances, while Zach is optimistic and full of love for his big brother. An overheard conversation convinces Owen that Zach will be easier to place without an older brother; so, he sends him off alone on the orphan train. Then, 1t 13, he must fend for himself.

A floating circus provides the chance he needs. Befriended by Solomon, a freed slave, and given a job helping his new friend, Owen finds solace. As the boat travels from city to city Owen adjusts to the long hours, the hard work and the cruelties he must face. He begins to understand the degradation and horror of slavery as well as his place in his small part of the world. Solomon is a good friend, kind and generous with his praise. Owen is fed well, makes new friends and learns to love Little Bet, a baby elephant. When yellow fever strikes New Orleans, the circus troupe is not immune. As they travel by sea to a new destination they are engulfed by a severe storm and the ship is badly damaged. The circus disbands. In the confusion that results Solomon is sold back into slavery, and Owen receives a telegram telling him his brother is safe and missing him.

Deciding that he must fashion his own fate, Owen makes some huge decisions, each fueled by a desire for justice for Solomon, a better life for Owen himself and a yearly visit with his brother who is safe, loved and being care for in his new home.
The ending is sad, but hopeful.

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer did her homework before writing Owen's story. It is historical in its depiction of the American south in the 1850s and of the circus life of the times. Her story of the terror and resulting hysteria of the yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans is real and traumatic. Slavery, the lure of circus attractions and poverty play a role in all that happens to Owen and his brother, making it personal to the reader and leaving us with strong feelings about many of the tale's events.

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