Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Truevine: Two Brothers, A Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South

Truevine is the remarkable story of George and Willie Muse, born to a sharecropper in a part of the country that had hardly changed since slave days. And they were born albino African Americans, with white skin, pale hair in dreadlocks, and blue eyes unable to focus or stand light. The boys faced a brutal life in the tobacco fields of Virginia.

The brothers were six and nine when they were stolen from their home in Truvine to be exhibited in circuses, told their mother was dead. Called Eko and Iko, Ambassadors from Mars, or the Sheep-headed freaks, or touted as cannibals, they performed across America and in Europe. Uneducated, told to talk in mumbo jumbo and to act wild, they also learned any instrument by ear and loved to sing It's a Long Way to Tipperary.

Their heartbroken mother spent twenty-eight years trying to reunite with her sons.

When the circus arrived in the brother's home town their mother was in the audience and was recognized by her sons She went to court to seek justice for her sons: remuneration, better living conditions, correspondence with their family, a retirement savings account. Her sons, after all, were one of the biggest draws in the sideshow.

In Roanoke, VA, African Americans lynch mobs dealt out 'justice' and the descendants of slaves were considered genetically inferior. The Muse brother's mother took on one of the biggest entertainment businesses in a courageous act that could have brought fatal repercussions.

Not that the battle was fought once and for all. The boys contracted to return to the circus, this time with a salary. But they were handed off to a new manager who took off for another venue and kept all the proceeds for himself. The brothers spent 28 years exploited, in virtual slavery.

I was reluctant to read a book about 'freaks' until I saw the reviews. Macy considers the Muse brothers' story in context of African American history from slavery through Jim Crow laws, the eugenics movement the early 20th c., and cultural and political changes including urban renewal.

The author spent 25 years building a relationship with the woman who cared for the last Muse brother in old age. Truevine is impressive in it's scope, exploring human trafficking, the heyday of the circus, the racial history of Roanoke, VA, and offers sympathetic, human portraits of the Muse family.

There is question about how the brothers came to be discovered by the circus and if the circus life was better than the lives they would have had, especially as they developed blindness. What is not under question is the love and respect given the aging Willie who lived to be 108; his tombstone reads, "God is good to me."

As I read this book I remembered the elementary school boy with a hook for a hand. And I realized the white haired, white skinned boy with dark glasses in my high school had albinism. Differences were something I took in stride growing up, for as my mother used to say, in another day and economic status, she would have been a circus freak.

Mom suffered from psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. At times 90% of her body was covered by psoriasis. Her nails were thick, yellow, and bumpy. She took long soaking baths and applied creams to loosen the dead skin, leaving her with red patches of new skin. Arthritis too mobility in her neck, hands, and major joints. Her treatments included mercury salves, cortisone that caused weight gain and thin skin that easy tore open, application of smelly tar ointments followed by body wrapping in saran wrap, applications of olive oil on her scalp (which I helped apply with cotton balls), Ultra Violet light treatment that caused pre-cancerous growths, and finally Methotrexate which allowed her a quality of life she had not experienced in decades.

Mom figured she would have been touted as a scaly Fish Lady.

To me, Mom was pretty, smart, and generous, a loyal friend, an incessant reader. Yes, she needed help with her personal care, and had trouble opening jars or lifting heavy things. But I was not ashamed of her, as she feared, nor did I feel the need to explain or hide Mom's autoimmune disease.

The Muse brothers didn't have what Mom enjoyed: a loving mother and father who provided for their children, a loving husband, a community that supported her, affordable medical care. The Muse brothers did have a mother who never gave up wanting the best for her sons.

"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."
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Truevine: Two Brothers, A Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South
Beth Macy
Little, Brown & Company
$28 hard cover
ISBN 9780316337540

No comments:

Post a Comment