On the heels of Leap Day, Day366 itself, we head into March, March 1 being today’s date, or, as others might call it, the first day of March. That means I’ve written a blog post every day for two months, and really, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it this far (though today is the latest I’ve ever posted, mainly because it’s been busy, but still, before midnight counts, and I’m not even close). Without a doubt, reading stories, finding books, and writing little critical-personal essays has become a part of my life. It’s been a richer, fuller life for this writer, teacher, and lover of stories. Onward, the next five-sixths of the project!
Today I’ve chosen to read Cathy Day, mainly picking her because I covered Dan Chaon yesterday, and back in 2012, I was on a panel at AWP with Dan and Cathy, a reading and discussion of the Midwestern Gothic (not to be confused with the fine, unrelated lit journal of that name, as this panel was a talk sponsored by Ninth Letter). Dan is from Ohio, Cathy from Indiana, and I’m from Chicago, and it was truly an honor to sit with these writers—quite a bit more prestigious than me—and be able to talk about the home region (and how depressing we are). Midwest! Whoop whoop! Represent!
The Day book I’ve chosen is The Circus in Winter, and technically, I’m not sure if I should even be reading from this book. On the cover, the word “stories” cannot be found, but in its place, right under the title, sits the word “fiction.” Really, it seems like maybe a novel-in-stories, or at least a group of interrelated vignettes, but without getting into semantics, the pieces in The Circus in Winter feel like stories, or parts, separate from one another, that make up a whole. Since I get to make the rules at Story366, I sent the book up to the judges’ table to examine, and the judges (me) decided The Circus in Winter was eligible. Remind me to send the judges a fruit basket or something, just to say thanks for agreeing with me.
The Circus in Winter is about a traveling circus that retires to Indiana each winter (perhaps inspiration for the title, but I’m not assuming anything). It’s based on the real-life Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus’ greatest competition in the early twentieth century. The latter won out, of course—I went to enough grade school field trips to the Chicago Stadium to testify—but for a while, this other circus gave them a run for their money. Day fictionalizes its history (by changing the name, among other details), and story by story, the rise and fall of this enterprise unfolds.
The first story, “Wallace Porter,” is sort of the origin story of the book, of the circus, of how it got its name. Porter, as you might guess, is the proprietor of the Great Porter Circus, and in Day’s introductory tale, we find out how Porter came across a circus, which, unlike a lot of professions, isn’t all that easy to get into. Like so many success stories, Porter didn’t start out in the circus business. He was into something else, horses, breeding them, raising them, selling them, and caring for them, amassing for himself a small fortune. On a business trip out east, Porter runs across Irene, his banker’s daughter, and the two immediately meld. Irene wants to hear of the adventures out west (Indiana), her life as a rich socialite boring her to tears. She wants to head out to the frontier (Indiana) with Porter, and the two marry. The couple returns to the Hoosier state (Indiana), to Porter’s horse business, temporarily sating Irene’s lust for adventure.
This is the point at which the conflict is incited, as Porter not ony wants to settle in Indiana, in Lima (the Hagenback-Wallace Circus settled in Peru—get it?), and in fact, wants to give Irene settling as a present. He begins building a grand mansion on the prairie, buying up rugs and furniture and curtains as fast as he can, constructing as his finances allow. Irene, however, sees each item as a death sentence, and even considers them that way, a chest of drawers a lost week in a hotel, a carpet a train ticket they can no longer buy. Irene wants to keep going west, keep seeing new things, while Porter wants to give her everything—only she wants nothing. Nothing material, anyway.
Porter continues to build his fortune, keeps Irene tethered to his dream, while at the same time, Irene grows ill. This does not deter Porter, as he continues on his foolish mission. It isn’t until a small traveling circus passes through Peru, needing care for their horses, that Porter realizes his mistake. He encounters a fifteen-fingered woman, a fortune teller, who sees his fate, and more importantly, Irene’s. So impressed by what he’d experienced, Porter has a moment of clarity, and at the story’s end, inquires as to how much a circus would cost.
“Wallace Porter,” as a work of fiction, stands alone, as I stand by my choice to feature it on Story366. Sure, there’s a natural progression toward what’s next at the end of the story, but Porter’s clear change, his epiphany, define it as a story for me more than anything. This is on top of the great characterization, Day’s eye for period details, and the adventurous feeling that hangs over the pages, like something great is being uncorked. I love “Wallace Porter” and want to, as much as any book in this project, read on, see what comes next.
Cathy Day, from Peru, Indiana, herself, has written one of the great histories of her home town. She is a talented writer, a great teacher, and a wonderfully nice person. Check it out—there’s elephants abound!