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'Truevine' untangles a tale of exploitation and grace

Author Beth Macy explores race and the South in the saga of two circus 'freaks.'

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In the 1990s, nurses loved to tend to a blind Virginia centenarian named Willie Muse. Kind and empathetic, he'd pick up on their moods from their voices and offer gentle guidance whenever they seemed to be down.

"Feed 'em honey instead of vinegar," he'd say. "It's good to keep the peace." Or he'd tell them to "be better than the person who is mistreating you."
This old man had special insight into the human condition – "he just knew things," one nurse recalls – but it didn't come from a happy past.

Nearly a century earlier, he and his brother George lost their identities, their families and their humanity when they were "stolen" by the circus.

They'd become two of the most famous sideshow "freaks" in history, a pair of albino African-Americans who were touted as "Ecuadorian savages" and "ambassadors from Mars." People would look at them, Willie Muse recalled, "like some kind of monsters."

But the indignity didn't define him, writes Virginia journalist Beth Macy in the new book Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.

Macy – author of 2014's bestselling "Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town" – first wrote about the Muse brothers in 2001, when Willie Muse died. Now, she revisits their extraordinary life story in "Truevine," a vivid and moving history that uncovers much more than exploitation and racism. There's a sense of grace here too, found in the resilience of these two brothers and their mother, a woman who may have been trying to make up for a horrific decision.  

"One of my advisers, a sociology professor, says that black people really want people to know that they have survived something – emotionally, physically, spiritually – that would have killed most people," Macy says. "That's the heart of this book."

In an interview with the Monitor, Macy talks about the origins of this "whiz-bang" story, the surprising role of the circus in American life, and the meaning of "Truevine" in the book's title.

Q: What drew you to this story?

It's been with me almost my entire career, since I was 24. I was driving around with a Roanoke Times photographer, and he told me about these two albino African-American brothers who were kidnapped and joined the circus.

He said it's the best story in town, but nobody's ever been able to get it because the keeper of the story is the caregiver and protector of one of the brothers, and she decided that he was done being exploited. It was time for him to rest and be respected.

She let us write the story after the surviving brother, Willie Muse, died in 2001 at the age of 108.

It's a whiz-bang story, quite a yarn, and it was actually true, or at least very much mostly true.

Q: Circuses were a huge business in the early years of the 20th century. Is it fair to say that just about everybody went to the circus?

I think people with any extra money at all would have gone to the circus.

From 1840 to 1940, the circus was the biggest form of entertainment in the country. People were starting to have money, starting to have half a Saturday off. In an era before people went on vacations much, the big deal was when the circus came through town.

If you couldn't afford it, you'd get that free peek in the morning if you went to the railroad station when the train rolled in first thing in the morning. People would set their alarm clocks so they could be there when a hundred railroad cars would unload hundreds of camels and elephants and people and tents and horses.

Q: Where did the sideshows fit in?

For another dime or quarter extra, you can come behind the secret tent and you could see these human spectacles.

They'd make it sound like the sideshows were scientific, that they were educational. In this era, people were really obsessed with Africa, the dark continent. Some of the African-American sideshow acts grew out of that. George and Willie would be "found off the coast of Madagascar," Darwin's missing links.

Q: One of the big questions your book raises is this one: Were the Muse brothers, and sideshow performers, entirely exploited? Or did they manage to exploit the exploiters, to even the score in some way?

"They were laughing at us, but we were laughing at them because they paid money to see us." Willie Muse said that all the time, and other sideshow performers said that too.

Q: Without giving too much of the book away, the Muse brothers are eventually able to make a decent living as circus performers. What does that mean for them?

You can tell by the photographs that they have more agency in their lives, they seem happier.

Q: Happier than they may have been back in the town of Truevine?

I'm really interested in the issues of family and Jim Crow, and this whole question of whether they were better off in the circus than at home. That allows me to talk about race and the history of race and the dehumanizing of them as "Ecuadorian savages" or "ambassadors from Mars."

By writing this book, I'm giving them back their humanity and trying to make up for the way my journalistic forebears treated them.  

Q: Your book is about race, the circus and the South, but the title – "Truevine" – doesn't mention any of those things. Instead, it refers to John 15:1 – "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener," in some translations.  Did you choose the title?
 
That was my choice. It's a spiraling vine of a story that I'm trying to follow, and the family is literally from Truevine.

And if you go around rural Southern towns where tobacco was grown, there are a lot of Truevine Missionary Baptist Churches. So I had to figure out what that means to African-American communities.

Recently, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and found myself talking to a pastor in line. I mentioned my book, and he spouts off the verse. I asked what it means to him. He said "it means that if you're right with God, you might meander off the path. But you can prune those moments and keep that direct line to God, no matter what happens to you."

This was key to slaves and descendants of slaves: No matter what they do to me, if I'm right with God, I'll persist, I'll prevail.

That was such an important thing to George and Willie. On Willie's tombstone, it says "God is good to me."

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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