Title: The Wonder Show I Author: Hannah Barnaby I Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has been recommended as one of the best YA books of 2013 and offers the following synopsis for The Wonder Show:
Portia is looking for another new beginning and a place to belong. Does she have a strong enough constitution to do it at the travelling freak show?
Plot Summary: Set in the Dust Bowl era Midwest, The Wonder Show focuses on a high spirited girl of gypsy decent by the name of Portia Remini who finds herself abandoned to the care of her strict and unimaginative Aunt Sophie so her father Max can search for work. He leaves with the promise that he will return for her but after four years, Aunt Sophie looks for other care alternatives. She settles on a home for wayward girls and drops Portia off in the care of a character called Mister.
Mister is bereft of any genuine benevolence toward the girls in his charge. He uses the young women for cheap labor before he eventually sells them to men who are settling in the West and are looking for wives.
While at the Home, Portia befriends a young woman named Caroline. Portia recognizes that Mister has inappropriate designs on Caroline but convinces her to use her influence over Mister to get them jobs as house servants in Mister's home. Portia wants to be in the main house so she can find Mister's files and discover her father's current address.
Mister decides that he wants to make Caroline his wife and Caroline accepts him with the idea that her mother would never allow such a marriage to take place. When she learns that her mother has given her blessing, Portia concocts a plan to keep Caroline from having to endure her marital obligations. She tells Carline to put just a little strychnine in his food to keep him sick. This way he will not be able to come near Caroline or make advances on her. Caroline uses the strychnine on herself to commit suicide and Portia makes her escape to Mosco's Traveling Wonder Show where she continues her search for her missing father.
Rating: This young adult book has earned a Mature Content rating for aberrant behaviors, inappropriate language, and references to suicide and sexual exploitation. It also receives three stars for story development.
Review : Boy, there's just a lot of unfortunate material in this book. Where to begin? Let's only lightly touch upon the loutish and inappropriate language that is sprinkled enthusiastically throughout this young adult novel, but let's do keep in mind that YA literature is considered appropriate for children 12 to 18 by the American Library Association. That the American Library Association has named The Wonder Show as one of the best YA books for 2013 means that this book will end up on the shelves of school libraries throughout the nation. Libraries rely on the taxpayer funded ALA and YALSA for the purposes of stocking books for their students.
I would say that there's just enough vulgarity in this book to seem delightfully naughty to the average 12 to 18 year old student…and how else can we possibly entice children to read if authors aren't allowed to talk dirty to them, after all?
The language will also stand out as inappropriate to the average parent. Lots of GDs for those of you who find this particular form of insult concerning, but it hardly compares to the other plot problems, so we'll let them pass and move on to the most serious issues.
Let me start by setting the table for you. The protagonist of The Wonder Show is a headstrong gypsy girl that we meet as the nation undergoes a period of economic decline. It seems to be around the time of the Dust Bowl. From that point on, the reader is reintroduced to Portia at different points in her life and this takes us from her parents' home to her aunt's home to a home for wayward girls and then finally the Wonder Show which is a traveling freak show…the author's characterization, not mine. When she joins the freak show, she is around 15 or 16 years old.
Based on the rosary and priest references, Portia comes from a Catholic family. The book is written mostly from Portia's perspective which succeeds in letting the reader know that she has little respect for her faith or for Christianity in general…i.e. "Somewhere between the bottom edge of Ohio and the open span of Kentucky, they crossed the border into Jesusland."
And hey, I get it. Christ-bashing is apparently a YA precondition if an author wants to get noticed by the American Library Association. Seeing as how I have read and reviewed five books off the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, seeing as how I have done so in alphabetical order by author and seeing as how each book has dutifully hated on Christians as if prescribed by a higher authority, I'm left to conclude that one must disdain Christianity to achieve relevancy within the YA genre.
Anyway, I'll want to come back to that Jesusland quote in good time. For now, let's move forward.
Both Portia's parents abandon her. She comes to live with her Aunt Sophia who is a pretty cold fish by Portia's accounts. "Aunt Sophia didn't hold her. Aunt Sophia took care of her, fed her and kept her clean and dry. She taught Portia what Aunt Sophia knew how to teach: manners, churchgoing and cooking." The bottom line is that there is no joy in Portia's little world and Aunt Sophia's life lessons are less than appreciated. Portia becomes restless and easily distracted.
Here's the thing. Right from the get-go there is a clash between reality and Hannah Barnaby's fictional world. What the young reader will fail to understand because the author fails to understand is that for children living during the Great Depression, three hots and a cot was a good life. If one's guardian didn't have time or energy for hugs, it wasn't generally noticed because children were working right alongside caregivers and were often too tired to complain. Children of that period were usually thankful for what little attention they received. This is of absolute historical significance but Portia is a Dust Bowl orphan exhibiting the luxury of modern egocentricity. The structural dichotomy is exposed to anyone who has a clue about this period in American history.
Now, it should also be noted that Portia is willful, stubborn and kind of a troublemaker. She steals money from her aunt to buy notebooks so she can write stories. The reader can naturally rest assured that it's okay to steal as long as it's for the pursuance of the arts. Portia admittedly lies easily and often in order to get out of trouble. She accidentally sets a fire; she causes disruptions during church services; she's prone to emotional outbursts. Had Portia been more inclined to behave for the woman who was caring for her in the absence of Portia's parents, she may not have been sent to a home for wayward girls.
But away she goes. And what a home she is sent to…led by a man who sees children as his free workforce, who is delusional, severe and erratic in his religious convictions, who has inappropriate reading materials in his private office that are never fully discussed. The reader will only know that the books are not fit for children's eyes. This naturally makes Mister a religious hypocrite. This is in keeping with the mandatory Christ-hating of modern YA literature.
Mister is an outright sleazebag and that sleazebag has a "thing" for one of his wards, Caroline. Portia picks up on that attraction and uses Mister's lust for Caroline and Caroline's desire to be forgiven by her mother to get the two girls jobs in Mister's house. Caroline's feelings about this new living arrangement are of little concern, and so a reader who is paying attention will begin to realize that Portia is very much an antihero. Not very likeable at all. As events begin to spiral out of control, Caroline kills herself rather than wed Mister. It's a very gruesome suicide and Portia's responsibility in the ordeal is offered a few perfunctory mentions when a great deal more emotion should have been spent understanding her personality flaw as it weaves itself throughout the story. This is the heart of what could be overcome to make Portia worthy of the reader's respect.
It's at this point that Portia makes her break and joins up with Mosco's Traveling Wonder Show. And this is where we return to the quote, "Somewhere between the bottom edge of Ohio and the open span of Kentucky, they crossed the border into Jesusland."
You see, I promised we'd get back to it and we did. The problem with crossing into Jesusland is that it is filled with narrow-minded bible thumpers who wouldn't like certain aspects of the Wonder Show if they knew about them. Those aspects are curtailed during the show's travels into Jesusland.
What are those offensive features? Glad you asked. The show features the usual characters that would be common in this kind of show. A strong man, a fat lady, a bearded lady, a giant, a dwarf, an armless woman…and all those performers are relatively acceptable in Jesusland. But at the end of the show, visitors are invited to stick around and pay a little more money for a very different kind of act. Once inside a private viewing area, the spectators are treated to a striptease act featuring conjoined twins who slowly remove their clothes and then grope each other.
Pause and remember that this book is deemed acceptable for children 12 to 18.
Apparently, Jesus-lovers don't care for such behavior. The young reader will be led to understand that such judgmentalism is beyond contemptible even though Portia recognizes that the twins' behavior is risqué and the audience…I'm sorry, I forgot. The term is "rubes." The rubes are perverted. Pippa and Polly dance in this manor – it's called the blow off – for extra money so that one day they will be able to own a house of their own. The young reader will understand that the wrongness of the situation is conditional to the twins' need for money.
The twins' justifications are such that Pippa doesn't see an alternative to their sexploitation. Polly is too mentally challenged to distinguish between the right or wrong of it. The situation makes her uncomfortable, but she is relying on Pippa to guide her. Says Polly, "I would rather be in Hell with Pippa than be in heaven without her."
The rest of the story is formulaic and ends with a kind of odd happily-ever-after that modern YA literature tends to celebrate. Anticlimactic, morally twisted and bleak. Needless to say, The Wonder Show is not appropriate or recommended for children under seventeen. Needless to say, anyone over the age of seventeen will dislike the sixth to seventh grade reading level that the book preserves.