Book Review: Wonder Show by Hannah Rodgers Barnaby
It’s somewhere around the late-19th/early 20th century. A feisty girl’s father places her with a strict aunt when he leaves town to look for work. Girl waits for her father to return for years. He doesn’t. Aunt eventually tires and leaves girl at a home for wayward girls run by an evil proprietor. Terrible things happen there. Girl escapes and joins the circus. The girl is Portia Remini. It’s a good story: a familiar trope, but unique enough to keep my attention.
To me, Wonder Show felt like two books: pre-circus, and circus-and-beyond. Each “half” felt as if it was full of big ideas that that didn’t have time to get completely fleshed out. I say this because the supporting characters and circumstances, while all appointed with great depth and meaning– didn’t have a ton of description to them (e.g. on pages 18 and 19 we read a list of spunky/naughty things that Portia did while in the care of her aunt, but there are never any scenes or dialogue that further expose us to this aspect of Portia’s personality. The classic writing rule of “show, don’t tell” seems to have been ignored in this sort of way throughout the book). Maybe 274 pages just wasn’t long enough to make the story feel satisfying?I would love to see it fattened up into a 500-page odyssey.
Despite the fact that I would have liked more details, the author does do a really interesting job of constructing the story to keep it moving: There are multiple point-of-view shifts, there are (as mentioned above) handwritten lists, there are lovely vignettes that only last a page. Furthermore, many of the circus characters are based on real circus people from history, highlighting the admirable amount of research that must have gone into writing this book (this is detailed in the Authors note at the end).
Find a copy of Wonder Show here