In a narrative that is by turns funny, informative and poignant, Wilkins chronicles a month on the road in his native Canada with the Great Wallenda Circus in the spring of 1997 and, in the process, offers remarkable insight into a subculture. A diverse assortment of gymnasts, animal trainers, daredevils and wanderers who identify themselves as circus folk that is slowly disappearing from public consciousness. Ricky Wallenda, the producer and organizer of the outfit, inherited his famous name from his grandfather Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the famous "Flying Wallendas" circus family. Wallenda, forced off the high wire and into show production by two harrowing accidents and haunted by the memory of family and personal tragedy, is an example of the dogged persistence that drives these performers to stay in the circus business despite the grind of constant travel and preparation, dwindling profits and omnipresent danger (what these circus folk have to say about tigers will make readers afraid of their Frosted Flakes). Wilkins's primary guide through both the lore and the practical reality of the circus is Bobby Gibbs, the 370-pound animal trainer and social provocateur who lovingly shepherds his 60-year-old, blind elephant, Judy, through the backroads and chilly arenas of Canada. Gibbs exhorts Wilkins to capture the experience truthfully: "Don't sugarcoat it!" Wilkins, with a love for the circus nurtured since childhood, balances his admiration for the performers and their craft with a probing exploration of their humanity.
The story begins in Sioux Narrows, Ontario on May 13, 1997 where the author, Charles Wilkins, tagged along for an entire month through the rural and remote areas of Canada with performers of the Great Wallenda Circus.
The line-up of performers were talented: David Connors was the prop boss and his wife, Sissy, was a aerialist; Wilson Barnes was a tiger trainer raising his three-year-old daughter, Connie, on the road; Bobby Gibbs was an elephant trainer, Bill Barren was a singing ringmaster; Pat Delaney ran the concession stand; and Jill Goncalves performed a wonderful sword balancing routine, to name a few.
The Wallenda Circus suffered a lot of tragedy first with the death of the patriarch Karl Wallenda when he died in a fall from the high wire in 1978. Six other family members died performing: uncles, cousins, an aunt, a grandfather, and a stepfather. The human pyramid collapsed during a show in Detroit on January 30, 1962 leaving two aerialists dead, a third paralyzed for life and a fourth with internal and head injuries.
In the late 1950's they performed on the grandstand at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, Ontario.
There were many obstacles for the Wallenda Circus to overcome: immigration regulations for both the performers and the animals; severe flooding from torrential rains; and vicious competition from other circus's, to name a few.
The stories that the performers and workers tell about the very real delights and dangers of being part of a circus is breathtaking. The book conveys the sights, sounds, and smells of the circus as though you were really there and sitting under the Big Top! The description and detail makes the book come alive and I would highly recommend it to other people.
on July 6, 1999
For a month in spring 1997, Wilkins traveled with the Great Wallenda Circus, a gritty group of seasoned circus vets, on a trip through a remote stretch of Canada. Facing such obstacles as unyielding immigration regulations (for both animals and performers), unprecedented flooding with unseasonable temperatures, and fierce competition from another circus, the Wallenda performers (led by Karl's grandson, Ricky Wallenda) show their merit as troupers in the truest sense of the word. Interspersed with descriptions of the circus's performances in the often-chilly and poorly lit hockey venues of Manitoba are the stories of the circus's performers and crew, each of which reveals a different facet of the daily dangers of circus life: unpredictable (and sometimes in-bred) tigers, vendetta-holding elephants, unstable rigging for aerial acts, and the omnipresent fatigue that can make a performer misstep minutely, but fatally. Beyond these dangers, however, is another threat to the circus's performers, which Wilkins chronicles beautifully and movingly: the decline and fall of the circus in America. It's a casualty with complex causation, including the senescence of Shriners (who sponsor a large number of American circus performances), the rise of the animal rights movement, and the effect of television, with its showy tromp l'oeil special effects, on our expectations for entertainment. Is watching a 370-pound man put an elderly, blind elephant through a series of slow-moving tricks enough of a thrill for audiences raised on car chases and gunfire? Wilkins thinks so, and after reading this wonderful book, so do I.
on March 15, 2011
It is a joy to me that our family friend Bobby Gibbs is so well remembered in this work. Although it has been awhile since my wife and I read Mr Wilkins wonderful book his portriat of Bobby is right on and utterly correct. Year after year we would simply sit and listen and listen to Bobby, as if one had a choice.
I remember finding him once in a barn on the fairgounds of my home town Iowa City, Iowa, probably traveling with a shrine show. We watched the Eddie Murphy DVD Coming to America with the crew that night, basically out of doors. Sometimes when we returned to the circus, we would find Bobby, sometimes not.
Bobby was one of the great characters in the circus world, it's most engaging story teller. He made amazing verbal creations that were often almost true. Mr. Wilkins understood the circus as I understand it. "Water for Elephants" will I suppose be remembered, I haven't read it, but a reliable source tells me it isn't circus.
Our circus friends are the best we have ever made. Bobby is gone now, as might be expected, of a heart attack. He told me that he once worked with commentator Daniel Pinkwater on a show. To the best of my memory he told the young Mr. Pinkwater that the circus wasn't for him. Correct. But then he may have detected storyteller competition.
on January 8, 2002
Very well written, and fascinating. The author gives the reader an 'insider' view of the circus world; this includes an objective and respectful portrayal of the brave and talented people. I appreciated the honest perspectives, i.e., hearing 'the other side of the story' in terms of animal rights. It is a beautiful, touching, absolutely fantastic story.
on November 29, 2001
I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this book, from the subject matter to the personality of the author to the quality of the writing, which is excellent. At times, it reads as luridly and poetically as a novel. If you are enamored of the circus, as I am, and would like to run away with one for a while--even if only in your imagination--this is the book for you.