Review: Wonder Show

Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Morris Finalist.

The Plot: Portia Remini has not run away from home to join the circus.

First, its’s a carnival, not a circus, and it’s called Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show.

Second, it was not home, not a home with parents or family. Parents and family left, long along, fleeing the dust and looking for work, and finally the last relative had enough and sent her to the McGreavey Home for Wayward Girls. She lasted there a few years before deciding she had to leave, to try to find her father.

And why not the Wonder Show? She’s a normal among freaks: the Wild Albinos of Bora Bora, the Bearded Lady, and others.

Will Portia find what she’s looking for? And will the McGreavey home let her go?

The Good: This is one of those books that I’m so grateful to the Morris Award for; it’s because this is a finalist I decided to read it and I’m so happy I did. It’s wonderful; a Favorite Book Read in 2013. And I usually hold of on that announcement until the end of the post, but this is that good.

On the sentence level alone, oh, so wonderful. I kept on wanting to copy out sentence after sentence, and began slow-reading to relish each one. Here, at the start: “Stories came easily to Portia. Lies came even more easily, and more often. The difference was in the purpose. The stories taught her to imagine places beyond where she was, and the lies kept her out of trouble. Mostly.”

And “She was careful with her apple tree. She did not ask too much of it.”

And, “women like Sophia are great rocks in the sea, weathered and worn but never broken.”

And, “she didn’t know yet. There are far worse things than witches. Worse than bears. Worse than the devil himself.”

And this is only page 23!! OK, here’s one more: “she wore an expression that was a mixture of hope and weariness, that said she was waiting for something better to come along but wasn’t holding her breath.”

Even aside from the quotes, the structure of the novel itself. I didn’t mention, yet, that it’s set in the late 1930s but that is because Wonder Show only hints at it in the start of the book. Talk of the dust coming and people having to leave for work, so it’s the 1930s, one thinks, but the confirmation comes later when Portia looks at a gravestone of someone who recently died and sees the year 1939. This is an example of the slow reveal of information, given only when it is needed and necessary, not before.

Another part of the structure is who tells the story, and when. Who says what when; when first person or third person is used; it’s significant, making more even more sense on reread on who says what when.

The slow reveal of information: for Portia, that is the problem. She doesn’t know what has happened to her father, and at the McGreavey Home she is driven to find her file, hoping that will tell her what she needs to know. When that doesn’t work out as she plans, she finds herself at the Wonder Show.

The Wonder Show; where Portia is a “normal” next to the “freaks.” The world of these carnivals is shown with depth, a place both where people are put up on stage to be gawked at while being a place where they could have independence, a way to earn a living, and acceptance from the others in the show.

For most of the book, Portia is fourteen; and I see this for readers seventh and above. Readers will understand that the “wayward girls” of the home Portia is sent to are typically girls who are pregnant and “wayward” because of their sexuality; but that is never spelled out  in the text. Instead, it’s a place for girls to be sent whose families don’t want them. There are a few things like that where the older reader will “get it” while the younger reader won’t.

Portia is fourteen; and she’s looking for family. Her earliest memories are about family, and while she says she leaves the Home to find her father, she is also finding family: the family of the Wonder Show.

Other reviews: A Patchwork of Books; Chasing Ray; Slatebreakers; Heavy Medal.



5 thoughts on “Review: Wonder Show

  1. Hey Liz,

    I just finished the book earlier this morning and wanted to pop by and thank you for your review which led me to read this book. As I probably have mentioned before, I love a book set in a circus or carnival. So, even though the carnival here wasn’t creepy (my favorite ala The Boneshaker), it was fully realized and completely transported you into another world.

    But the writing. So beautiful. You’ve already quoted my favorite (“She was careful with her apple tree. She did not ask too much of it.”). She really has a way with words that is beautiful and evocative. You feel the heat and the dust, smell and hear the carnival, feel the emotions of a scene. You sense the air being sucked out of the room/tent when the tension rises or the wrong thing is said. She gives you a sense of the person with only a few phrases. Love it. Not only are her main characters fully realized but so are the secondary and tertiary ones. Heck, you even get a good sense of the shadowy detectives at the end.

    Another bonus – it passes the Bechdel Test!


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