Circus Shoes Paperback
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Cob’s is literally a whole new world for them. They meet other children, German, Russian, and French, as well as many grown-up “artistes” and Ben Willis, the horsemaster. They go to school—a different one every few days—for the first time. They learn that they’re nowhere near as “grand” as Aunt Rebecca led them to think—their grandfather and father were gardeners! They find, too, that one of their new friends, Alexsis Petoff, is being pushed by his father to join the family high-school-horse act, even though what he truly wants is to be an aerialist. Then, as the tenting season comes to a close, Uncle Gus begins to talk of technical schools and getting them into offices. But by this time they know, like him at their age, that the circus is where they belong, even if they only stay there long enough to train to be a groom and a gymnasium teacher. The thought of a life in offices fills them with despair, and they wish they could do something to help Alexsis, who, like them, is being pressured to do something for which he has neither heart nor gift. But how can two children, not yet old enough to live on their own, persuade the adults that they really do know what they want?
Small circuses like Cob’s are more or less extinct today, but much of the lingo and the training, the putting on of the show itself, the logistics of travel and making ready for travel, are probably unchanged. Since most children are fascinated by circuses (even if they’re afraid of clowns!), they should enjoy this story.
When they go "tenting" with their uncle Gus, a true "artiste," they learn the values of circus folk: hard work and more hard work. Pride is taken only in perfect accomplishment. Everyone is equal, and no one is grander than anyone else. Most importantly, the circus people tell Peter and Santa, in no uncertain terms, the things they need to hear, that they are, in fact, idiots. However, they are not inherently idiots. Only the idiotic things they learned from their aunt make them stupid, and correspondingly, if they choose to open their minds, they can learn not to be idiots.
For a kids' book, it's pretty long, because Streatfeild shows Peter and Santa learning everything there is to know about big top life. There are pages and pages dedicated to putting up and taking down the big top. Even more space is dedicated to animal training and psychology, along with some good discussions of various types of acrobatics. And of course, we also see the performances through Peter and Santa's eyes: the first time they ever see the circus, and then, later, when they've learned something about it, more in depth understanding of the art.
Despite their obvious deficiencies, the reader is constantly rooting for the kids. Not, as in the other Shoes books, for the kids to achieve the professional artistic success toward which they have worked for so long, but simply for the kids to join the human race. When Peter learns to ride a horse, it's a great relief, because it's troubling he literally cannot do anything else and, as a reader, you don't want to believe that he's that useless. When Santa learns that she must practice with a will in order to become a true performer, it's a fitting cap to end the softness that characterizes her life up until that point. We're talking about a kid who takes almost 200 pages to realize that she can braid her hair to keep it out of her face.
The only possible ending to this story is for Peter and Santa to transform, completely, in circus performers, but Streatfeild, as she does, saves this climax for the very, very, very ending of the book (there's no denouement), nearly breaking the reader's heart as s/he contemplates how badly Peter and Santa will suck at anything else they set their hands to.