When I set out to read Truevine, the story of two African-American boys kidnapped from their small Virginia town in 1899 and forced to travel with the circus as freaks because of their albinism, I made a few rules for myself: 1) I would not read it at night before I went to sleep and 2) I would put it down for at least a day if it got too heavy for me. Despite the fact that I have read many accounts of the deep, dark, rotten, and ugly parts of this country’s history, I still have to prepare myself from getting depressed . Let’s be honest, it is difficult to read accounts of Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in southern states and posed economic, educational and social disadvantages for African-American people. Housing segregation forced African-Americans to live in run down communities and homes they could not afford because of job and discriminatory labor union practices. Public school segregation laws banned blacks and whites from attending the same schools, and crippled the educational advancement of black children who either did not have a nearby school to attend, or had to travel miles to a one room shack that received far less funding than the white schools. And it is difficult to read about the 3,959 lynchings that took place in the South between 1877 and 1950, some of them spectator sports for a jeering white audience.
Reading about this time of institutional oppression in US history can be rather daunting. Further exploring the plight of two African-American albino brothers stolen from their mother and exploited as “sheep headed freaks” due to their rare congenital disorder as well as their race can leave you feeling downright miserable. But I have to hand it to New York Times best-selling author Beth Macy. Her remarkable historical accounts and sensitivity for the humans involved in this tumultuous story made my experience whilst reading this book a journey from dark to light. The authors writing style is akin to having a conversation with your favorite high school history teacher as he/she recounts some of the goings on in his/her neighborhood around 1899 when the Muse Brothers went missing and their mother went on a quest to reclaim her sons thirteen years later. Beth Macy does an amazing job of highlighting the true accounts of what a desperate mother would do to provide for her children and never give up fighting for them no matter how long it takes.
The book also delves into the circus and the complexity of the lives of circus folk. Circuses and carnivals became very popular around this time and home to many outcasts of society. The book reveals the indentured servitude some circus acts were forced to endure, but some of whom seemed thankful to finally find a place they belonged. Why did they stay? Why did some of them agree to be exploited in such a way? After all, George and Willie Muse eventually returned to the circus after their mother found them. As a matter of fact, they traveled the world as circus acts Eko and Iko,their stage names, well into late adulthood.
In a time when people in the United States were considered less human for any physical deformity, which some thought included skin color, this book reveals a story of hope and perseverance. Harriett Muse, with all odds against her, was able to find her children, free them from their captors, and somehow got the law on her side to help them claim their self-worth figuratively and financially.
There is no question that this story is sad. However that was not my sentiment after finishing the book. I think the author did the Muse family a great justice with the way she told their story. Hopefully a possible feature film will do the same as Paramount Pictures and Leonardo DiCaprio are currently negotiating to acquire screen rights to the book. Per Deadline:
Paramount Pictures and Appian Way are negotiating to acquire screen rights to the Beth Macy book Truevine: Two Brothers, A Kidnapping, And A Mother’s Quest; A True Story Of The Jim Crow South. Appian Way’s DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson will produce and the book will be developed as a potential star vehicle for DiCaprio. The book tells the true story of two African-American brothers who were kidnapped and displayed as circus freaks, while their mother endured a 28-year struggle to get them back.
Stories like this are not only an important part of African-American history, but American history as well. They have the potential to further shine a light on important events that are often overlooked because of their shameful history. And with this novel, an ugly and important part of our history is exposed for the world to see.